Altruism and profit

When I suggest that supporting technological development may be an efficient way to improve the world, I often encounter the reaction:

Markets already incentivize technological development; why would we expect altruists to have much impact working on it?

When I talk about more extreme cases, like subsidizing corporate R&D or tech startups, I seem to get this reaction even more strongly and with striking regularity: “But that’s a for-profit enterprise, right? If it were worthwhile to spend any more money on R&D, then they’d do it.” Recently I’ve encountered this argument again, in the context of working to improve governance broadly. I sympathize with the sentiment, but the actual arguments don’t seem strong enough to carry the conclusion. Ultimately this is an empirical question about which I’m uncertain, but at this point it seems very unwise to take profitable opportunities off the table.

Read the rest of this entry »