Business leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are considered intellectual giants precisely because of the billions they have made, but is it a good idea to let markets dictate whom we regard as geniuses? Absolutely – we should all be thankful for the role that markets play in uncovering legendary talent, because the alternative is so much worse.
People like to romanticize the image of geniuses so dedicated to their work that they deem the appreciation of their contemporaries – be it honorific or financial – as unnecessary. Think of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only one painting during his life, often having to choose between buying food or paint, and predominately choosing the latter due to his drive. A miserable and penniless death was his demise.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, and we are all better off when it isn’t. Making geniuses fabulously wealthy is not about celebrating their contributions for its own sake – it is critical for ensuring that we successfully uncover the rough diamonds, and that their talents shine through to the next generation.
First of all, while the likes of Van Gogh lived in an era where breakthroughs could be made on a shoestring budget, this is no longer possible in the high-tech world of the 21st century. Producing at the cutting edge requires considerable physical, human, and financial resources – think of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines manufactured in record time by Pfizer, which need massive labs and armies of scientists supporting Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the geniuses who developed the idea.
The best way to summon the resources to support a genius at work is a market that rewards transformative inventions with billions of dollars.
Second, a byproduct of equipping a genius with an expensively assembled team of understudies is that they absorb the genius’s knowledge and skills, increasing the likelihood that one of the students becomes the next genius. Had the Greek philosopher Plato or the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens not been afforded the resources to work and teach, then disciples such as Aristotle and Anthony van Dyck might never have matured into geniuses themselves.
We might accept that geniuses need resources, but why not let benevolent governments and not cut-throat markets allocate them? Because governments have a pretty bad track record in that regard. As generalists, civil servants lack the specialized knowledge to discern a prodigy in the making, and as government employees, they lack the incentive to address their deficiencies: unlike a venture capitalist who stands to make millions if they can pick out the next biotechnology or artificial intelligence star. The public sector employee relies purely on their sense of duty.
Moreover, handing the keys to politicians opens the door to potential corruption inhibiting the work of a genius. Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei had to wait centuries before his seminal scientific discoveries were appreciated, because the politically powerful religious establishment saw him as a threat. In the 20th and 21st centuries, a genius like Steve Jobs, who was the son of immigrants and put up for adoption, may have been the victim of discrimination from bigoted civil servants had he relied on the government for support. The single-minded greed of capitalists that funded his many contributions allowed them to see past his racial, familial, and socioeconomic idiosyncrasies.
Markets, therefore, while being far from perfect, act as democratizers of the process of uncovering and supporting geniuses. The English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton was born in a well-off family, allowing him to realize his amazing potential, but had he be born to paupers, then we probably would never have benefited from his brilliance.
The same risk persists today, but the fact that media tsar Oprah Winfrey, software colossus Larry Ellison, and prolific writer JK Rowling were able to make it big despite their modest socioeconomic backgrounds – and due in large part to markets – is testament to the positive role that markets play in allowing us to benefit from genius. The Joker (Heath Ledger) in Batman: the Dark Knight had it right when uttering: “If you are good at something, never do it for free.”