Marc Andreessen on overcoming perverse incentives in philanthropy, and building new institutions with it

Jul 28, 2022


Sam Harris’ great Making Sense podcast last week featured Marc Andreessen—an Iowa-born and Wisconsin-raised engineer by training who pioneered an entire software category now used by more than a billion people, has created several multi-billion-dollar technology companies, and co-founded the successful Andreessen Horowitz venture-capital investment firm in Silicon Valley. He has also served on the boards of directors of eBay and Hewlett-Packard and currently serves on the board of Meta Platforms. He is influential and well-connected.

The almost two-hour conversation was wide-ranging, well-informed, and insightful. The episode, entitled “What Went Wrong?,” included references to and descriptions of some occasionally very-disheartening characteristics of America’s contemporary culture, economy, and politics. Harris himself light-heartedly labeled the discussion an “almost-frenzied autopsy” near its end.

“Is there anything that a ‘star chamber’ of a few dozen billionaire friends could accomplish, that should be accomplished? Is there a role for truly aggressive philanthropy here, truly scaled philanthropy, or a third political party?” Harris then concludingly asked Andreessen. “Is it possible to open up another front in this poorly defined war against decrepitude and de-civilization that very well-connected, well-resourced people could do on their own without asking permission?”

Andreessen answered:

Yeah, so the philanthropy mostly goes in the other direction, as you’re probably aware, right? So why do we have chaos and carnage in the streets, right? Because … there’s a coalition of billionaires that sort of elected all these pro-crime DAs, right?—and continue to fund them for reasons I don’t understand. And people get murdered every day as a result and they seem to like it, they seem to want more of it, because they keep pouring money into these things. So, most of the philanthropy’s headed in the other direction.

I mean, how you become a certified American oligarchic elite is you donate to all the right causes. Those are all the causes that have led to the current situation. … Incentives are wired to kind of take you in the opposite direction of what you’re talking about.

Andreessen then offered a brief menu of grantmaking options that Harris’ hypothetical “star chamber” of billionaires could and should consider. “The No. 1 form of philanthropy I would look at,” according to Andreessen,

would be creation of new institutions. The University of Austin, the UATX project is, I think, potentially a very big advance.

Look, media, I think, matters a lot. I think what you guys do, [and] people like you do, matters a lot—to be able to have a broader range of voices out there and have real debates and not have it be shoehorned into the existing formats ….

Well, I’ll give you one. I would say push is coming to shove in the education system, right? We don’t need to rehash everything, but the education system has real problems. It’s gone crazy in a lot of places, including where I live. Parents maybe didn’t know how crazy it was, but then Covid happened. A lot of parents saw what their kids are being taught in school over video and they were appropriately horrified. A lot of parents are moving their kids out of the system. There’s growing pressure to defund the system, and redirect the money to parents. Maybe this is a tipping point on that.


(The first half of the podcast is available without a subscription; to hear the full episode, a subscription is required.)