It used to be that plutocrats felt they were part of the society in which they lived, or at least felt the need to act as if they were part of that society. Thus, when they decided to give away some of their enormous fortunes, their gifts generally reflected a desire to improve the communities in which they lived, and often showed a desire to benefit a high culture they respected or at least felt the need to respect. Many American cities have museums, orchestras, libraries, and universities endowed by the robber barons or their descendants.
Today’s rich are different. Yesterday, there was a news item describing how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos “would be funding the ‘Clock of the Long Now.’ The clock is designed to keep ticking for 10,000 years, and will be built in a mountain in west Texas.” Bezos’ gift seems motivated by a desire to emulate bad science fiction; it certainly has nothing to do with helping Bezos’ community or advancing high culture.
Stranger still is the cause PayPal founder Peter Thiel has chosen to advance. Thiel is “a big backer of the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to build sovereign nations on oil-rig platforms to occupy waters beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties. The idea is for these countries to start from scratch–free from the laws, regulations, and moral codes of any existing place.” As a friend wrote me about this article: “Someone should write a novel about humans living on an island cut off from culture, religion, family and tradition. Oh yeah, William Golding already did. It’s called Lord of the Flies.”