Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Is effective altruism screwing over the arts?

The Seattle Times raises the question:
One of the members, Ben Schwyn, 26, a soft-spoken software engineer, reasoned: “You could attempt to quantify how much supporting the symphony costs or the probability of someone’s life being affected by that and without doing a lot of research, we don’t know what those are,” he said. “But my estimate is that they are not very effective.”
“And yet,” added Pasha Kamyshev, 28, a software engineer, “for the same amount of money you can distribute iodine for malaria through a charity to thousands in the second or Third World.” 
When it comes to making the choice between funding the symphony or saving someone’s life? The choice is easy. 
“Having your life changed by music is incredibly privileged,” said Van Nostrand. “People whose lives are changed by not dying — that’s a bigger thing.”
This logic seems pretty ironclad to me. Art is an ancient and special pursuit for humans, and I don't for a moment fear that it would disappear in the absence of private donations or government subsidies. Without subsidies we might have less art, or different kinds of art, but we'd still have art.

Indeed, with the internet and new technologies which democratize the act of creating information and objects, we are very likely living through a golden age of artistic creativity among the masses (having a big global population also helps with that). The incredible success of video games--which are often quite artistic--is also an interesting fact to bear in mind.

I don't take the position that if art can't turn a profit in the global market economy, it doesn't have value. But the human drive to create art seems quite resilient to me, and I don't recall ever hearing about a shortage of people willing to create it for little to no monetary compensation.

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