The billionaire has become a ubiquitous part of life in the 21st century.

In the past many of the ultra-wealthy were content to influence politics behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms or limit their public visibility to elite circles by using large donations to chisel their names onto galleries and museums. Today’s billionaires are not so discrete; they are more overtly influential in the world of politics, they engage in eye-catching projects such as space and deep-sea exploration, and have large, almost cult-like, followings on social media. 

Underpinning the rise of this breed of billionaire is the notion that there is something special about the ultra-wealthy. That in ‘winning’ capitalism they have demonstrated not merely business acumen, but a genius that applies to the human condition more broadly. This ‘epistemic privilege’ casts them as innovators whose curiosity will bring benefits to the rest of us and the best thing that we normal people can do is watch on from a distance. This attitude is embodied in the ‘Silicon Valley Libertarianism’ which seeks to liberate technology from the shackles imposed on it by small-minded mediocrities such as regulation. This new breed seeks great power without much interest in checks on the corresponding responsibility.

Is this OK? Curiosity, whether about the physical world or the world of ideas, seems an uncontroversial virtue. Curiosity is the engine of progress in science and industry as well as in society. But curiosity has more than an instrumental value. Recently, Lewis Ross, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, has argued that curiosity is valuable in itself regardless of whether it reliably produces results, because it shows an appreciation of ‘epistemic goods’ or knowledge.  

We recognise curiosity as an important element of a good human life. Yet, it can sometimes mask behaviour we ought to find troubling.

Hubris obviously comes to mind. Curiosity coupled with an outsized sense of one’s capabilities can lead to disaster. Take Stockton Rush, for example, the CEO of OceanGate and the author of the tragic sinking of the Titan submarine. He was quoted as saying: “I’d like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break’, and I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.” The result was the deaths of five people.  

While hubris is a foible on a human scale, the actions of individuals cannot be seen in isolation from the broader social contexts and system. Think, for example, of the interplay between exploration and empire. It is no coincidence that many of those dubbed ‘great explorers’, from Columbus to Cook, were agents for spreading power and domination. In the train of exploration came the dispossession and exploitation of indigenous peoples across the globe.  

A similar point could be made about advances in technology. The industrial revolution was astonishing in its unshackling of the productive potential of humanity, but it also involved the brutal exploitation of working people. Curiosity and innovation need to be careful of the company they keep. Billionaires may drive innovation, but innovation is never without a cost and we must ask who should bear the burden when new technology pulls apart the ties that bind.  

Yet, even if we set aside issues of direct harm, problems remain. Billionaires drive innovation in a way that shapes what John Rawls called the ‘basic structure of society’. I recently wrote an article for International Affairs giving the example of the power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in global health. Since its inception the Gates Foundation has become a key player in global health. It has used its considerable financial and social power to set the agenda for global health, but more importantly it has shaped the environment in which global health research occurs. Bill Gates is a noted advocate of ‘creative capitalism’ and views the market as the best driver for innovation. The Gates Foundation doesn’t just pick the type of health interventions it believes to be worth funding, but shapes the way in which curiosity is harnessed in this hugely important field.  

This might seem innocuous, but it isn’t. It is an exercise of power. You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to appreciate that knowledge and power are deeply entwined. The way in which Gates and other philanthrocapitalists shape research naturalises their perspective. It shapes curiosity itself. The risk is that in doing so, other approaches to global health get drowned out by focussing on hi-tech market driven interventions favoured by Gates.  

The ‘law of the instrument’ comes to mind: if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. By placing so much faith in the epistemic privilege of billionaires, we are causing a proliferation of hammers across the various problems of the world. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for hammers, they are very useful tools. However, at the risk of wearing this metaphor out, sometimes you need a screwdriver.  

Billionaires may be gifted people, but they are still only people. They ought not to be worshipped as infallible oracles of progress, to be left unchecked. To do so exposes the rest of us to the risk of making a world where problems are seen only through the lens created by the ultra-wealthy – and the harms caused by innovation risk being dismissed merely as the cost of doing business.