Sam Bankman-Fried and the thread that runs from effective altruism to libertarianism
My latest Verdict column addresses the question whether Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) is a crook who only ever pretended to be an altruist in order to con investors or a genuine do-gooder who got in over his head. I suggest he was always a genuine "effective altruist" (EA) who, in his zeal to earn as much money as possible so that he could give it away to do the most good possible, cut corners and broke the law. SBF committed real crimes in the service of his altruistic aims. From the EA perspective, that's no contradiction because EA is rooted in some version of act-utilitarianism, in which the ends justify the means. As I say in the column, "the lying, cheating, and stealing were not a bug in the operations of" SBF's companies; "they were a feature; the only bug was getting caught."
In an essay on this blog last December, I asked whether SBF's actions discredit EA. For the purposes of that essay, I assumed SBF's guilt, so the verdict doesn't change my analysis and conclusion, which I think remain sound: (1) the generic version of effective altruism--in which you try to get the biggest bang for your charitable buck--has much to be said for it; (2) the "earn to give" (ETG) strategy of SBF is a pretty naked form of utilitarianism--especially where one does the earning part by encouraging people to burn fossil fuel to power super-computers to mine Bitcoins--that is subject to all of the usual objections to utilitarianism; (3) but if one is a certain kind of utilitarian, then the fact that SBF was ultimately an unsuccessful ETG EA doesn't discredit ETG EA in all cases. One might hold out hope that some new ETG EA will succeed where SBF failed.
I'll return below to briefly evaluating ETG EA as a general matter, but now I want to pivot back to SBF. How did he come to be an EA in the first place? I have an admittedly speculative hypothesis.
I never met SBF, but I know a whole lot of people like him -- which is not to say that I know a whole lot of vegans. Or rather, I do know a whole lot of vegans, but almost none of the ones I know are like SBF. I do, however, recognize the SBF type from a different part of my life.
Like SBF, I was very good at math as a child. Like him, I went to special programs for math nerds. I'm happy to say that as a kid I wasn't only a math nerd. I had many friends and I was interested in and reasonably good at most sports that American boys in the 1970s and early 1980s played. To use anachronistic language, I didn't present as a nerd. But I was one, at least in part. If I'm willing to flatter myself, I thought of myself as a male version of Linda Cardellini's character Lindsay in Freaks and Geeks, without the drama and somewhat less (but not entirely un)rebellious (although of course I wouldn't have articulated it that way at the time, because while Freaks and Geeks was set in the early 80s, it was produced in the late 90s).
SBF met some of his future partners in crime at math camp. I made friends at a government-funded physics camp at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We reunited in Cambridge later when some of us majored in physics at Harvard and others majored in physics at MIT. Over a generation later, SBF majored in physics at MIT. I know the place well because during a summer when I was a research assistant helping to build muon detection chambers for a multi-institution collaboration, I spent at least half of my time in a lab at MIT. The SBF described by Michael Lewis in Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon is a very familiar type to me.
I'm hardly unique. Many other people who excelled at math as youngsters were and are otherwise normal people who do not fit the stereotype of the characters in The Big Bang Theory. Even so, that stereotype is rooted in a kernel of truth. It is the same kernel of truth that gave rise to the character of Mr. Spock in Star Trek--the super-intelligent Vulcan who is also coldly unemotional.
SBF fits the stereotype. Lewis recounts how SBF had to train himself to make facial expressions (like smiling and laughing) that mimic the expressions of people actually feeling the emotions associated with those expressions. We learn early on in Going Infinite that SBF handles stress well--not because he gets better under pressure but because, unlike most people, he doesn't feel stressed out and so doesn't get worse. And that's because he doesn't seem to feel much of anything.
Now, one might wonder why someone with a flat affect and a stunted emotional register would be interested in any kind of altruism, effective or not. The short answer is that lack of emotions does not necessarily mean lack of morals. In my experience--which I've confirmed through some reading is not atypical--a certain math nerd type is very attracted to morals in the form of rule following.
I know, I know. The problem with SBF is that he didn't follow the rules. He didn't follow social rules, like showing up for his appointments. More consequentially, he didn't follow legal rules, like not stealing his clients' money. So why am I bringing up rules?
Only to show that it's possible to reason one's way to morality. Truth be told, when I think of the (other) math nerds I knew as a teenager, the ones who seemed most stereotypically nerdy tended to reason their way to a form of morality--radical libertarianism--that I find childish at best and odious when it persists into adulthood. But reason their way to morality they did.
And so did SBF. He didn't become a vegan because he loves animals. Lewis recounts SBF's indifference to the (no doubt adorable) dog that his parents got to protect him during his house arrest. SBF became a vegan because he reasoned (correctly) to the conclusion that whatever modest increment in gustatory pleasure he enjoyed from eating animal-based foods rather than plant-based foods could hardly justify the enormous suffering of the animals exploited to produce the former.
Likewise, SBF reasoned his way to earn-to-give effective altruism. Indeed, the version of ETG EA upon which SBF eventually landed--the version that seeks to leverage money to reduce the risk of existential threats to humanity--has a certain similarity to radical libertarianism. Both are utopian projects. Libertarians would abolish all but the most night-watchman-ish functions of the state and trust to the magic of the market to satisfy human needs or, if they are not met, simply to extol freedom in the abstract. ETG EA that focuses on existential threats envisions the very effective altruist--the gazillionaire operator of FTX and Alameda Research, say--as a superhero saving the world.
SBF, in other words, is a kind of inversion of Ayn Rand's John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Galt says “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” SBF hoped to devote his life to what he believed was the service of all other beings. SBF's version of ETG EA mirrors the grandiosity and the childishness of Rand's libertarianism.
Finally, it should not go unremarked that the way that SBF sought to build his fortune was via participation in and facilitation of trading cryptocurrency--at least for a time beloved by so many libertarian crypto bros as a means of liberating finance from the tyranny of government-operated central banks, what with their pesky ability to provide liquidity or tighten the money supply as economic conditions warrant. Utopian grandiosity is a flat circle.