Britain’s youngest self-made billionaire is giving away his fortune — to people who don’t exist yet

Courtesy of Ben Delo

Ben Delo founded a cryptocurrency startup five years ago — and now he’s the UK’s youngest self-made billionaire.

The 35-year-old Brit founded BitMEX, a cryptocurrency trading company that hosted more than $600 billion in cryptocurrency trades in the past year. In 2018, BitMEX’s value was estimated at $3.6 billion; Delo owns 30 percent of the firm, which makes his net worth more than $1 billion.

This past month, he did something noteworthy: He promised to give much of his fortune away. Delo signed what’s known as the Giving Pledge, a commitment started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage fellow ultra-wealthy people to “dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” The most recent signatories to the pledge were announced this week.

While news that the UK’s youngest billionaire is committing to giving away at least half of his fortune is notable in itself, what’s really fascinating is where Delo is donating his money. Signatories to the pledge don’t have to announce where they’ll direct their donations, but Delo did. He wants to give to organizations that improve life on Earth for future generations — that is, the billions of people who don’t exist yet but who will (if we don’t screw up too badly). So far, he has funded research into preventing nuclear wars and into pandemic prevention and mitigation, as well as academic research into shaping the very long-term future.

Delo’s choice of donations is very much influenced by the philosophy known as effective altruism. He says he was driven by the work of fellow Oxford graduate Will MacAskill, one of the founders of the effective altruism movement. “To use Will’s framing of the idea,” Delo wrote me, “I take effective altruism to be the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.”

Delo reviewed the case for different ways his money could do good. His conclusion: He should give his money to advancing the interests of the generations of human beings still to come.

There are several new billionaires whose Giving Pledge commitments were announced this week. But giving isn’t commendable all by itself. What makes it commendable is when it’s done in a careful, thoughtful, impact-driven manner.

That’s what makes Delo stand out among the billionaires taking the pledge — his choice of where his money is needed most. Some people might find his focus on the far future absurd, but there’s no question that it’s an area that governments and existing philanthropists are mostly ignoring — meaning that if he’s right, he could have a big impact.

Doing good by looking ahead

In his book Doing Good Better and other writings and speeches, MacAskill argues that philanthropy has the power to do a lot of good — but you have to be really thoughtful about how you approach it.

Effective altruists believe that resources should be directed wherever they do the most good. Often, the best opportunities to do good are the ones that are, for whatever reason, underserved by governments and NGOs today, like aid to developing nations or efforts to improve welfare on factory farms.

Effective altruists also make one striking, controversial claim — that one good place to direct our money is toward securing and improving the lives of people who don’t exist yet and may not exist for millions of years.

“What are the things you most value in human civilization today?” asks an article titled “The Long-Term Value Thesis,” from 80,000 Hours, an effective altruism career advice site:

People being happy? People fulfilling their potential? Knowledge? Art?

In almost all of these cases, there’s potentially a lot more of it to come in the future:

The Earth could remain habitable for 600-800 million years, so there could be about 7 million future generations, and they could lead great lives, whatever you think “great” consists of. Even if you don’t think future generations matter as much as the present generation, since there could be so many of them, they could still be our key concern.

Civilization could also eventually reach other planets — there are 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone. So, even if there’s only a small chance of this happening, there could also be dramatically more people per generation than there are today. By reaching other planets, civilization could also last even longer than if we stay on the Earth.

MacAskill, in his book, notes that the case for tackling climate change or other risks to human civilization (which is solid even if you are only concerned with currently existing people) is much more powerful if you care about “maintaining a flourishing civilization into the future.” Nearly all policy and planning is focused on, at most, the next century, not on securing good lives for distant human descendants. That means that by focusing on the distant future, you can potentially do a lot more good.

Delo found this convincing. In November 2018, he made his first grants to organizations recommended by Effective Giving, an effective altruist organization in Oxford that worked closely with him to figure out promising ways to help the far future.

In his Giving Pledge letter last month, he wrote: “In short, I believe that all lives are valuable, including those of future generations. I expect that a vast and extraordinary future lies ahead if we can navigate the challenges and opportunities posed by new technologies in the upcoming century. And I am confident that we in the present generation can act prudently to safeguard that extraordinary future for our descendants. Indeed, we may be at a critical moment to do so.”

“The Earth could remain habitable for 500 million years to come, and if someday we took to the stars, our civilization could continue for billions more. Our descendants could truly outnumber us millions to one,” he told me.

So far, Delo has prioritized reducing the risks from nuclear war and climate change, research into biosecurity and AI, and institutions that are trying to make us better at anticipating tomorrow’s challenges, like the Forethought Foundation. The idea is that we have to make sure we don’t wipe out future generations, and we have to get better at predicting what’s coming so we can manage it appropriately.

Could government be more effective than individual billionaires at this kind of work? Maybe — but in practice, they aren’t. Government efforts in this area are typically narrowly focused on national security interests, and that means efforts with a broader perspective tend to be really underfunded.

For example, the US military spends a lot on biosecurity from a military perspective, but nonmilitary funding for the implementation support unit of the Biological Weapons Convention — an organization tasked with ensuring compliance with the international law that prevents nations from weaponizing viruses for war — has a total budget of $1.4 million a year, less than a typical McDonald’s franchise.

Often, politicians have a hard time taking the long view and prioritizing issues that will only arise once their constituents are dead, a tendency that may have driven some of our inaction on climate change.

So it’s an area where private philanthropy has filled in most of the gaps. Organizations Delo has funded, like the Forethought Foundation and the Center for Human-Compatible AI, don’t have obvious sources of government funding. They rely on private donors attempting to help a constituency that can’t vote and can’t protest: our descendants.

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