Are Venture Capitalists racists?

Shifting sovereignty from Kings to the people, was the beginning of human flourishing. In the United States, in its constitution the people returned only those powers to their government necessary to protect their wellbeing. The right to and protection of ones honestly acquired property is an essential aspect of this arrangement. This includes, of course, the right to invest our property anyway we choose.

Venture capitalists are those wealthy people who choose to take great risks in the prospect of large gains by investing in “startups” that have not yet established their profitability.  Put differently venture capitalists are prepared to finance an unproven idea/product/service that might gain public approval, i.e. might become profitable, though most of them fail.  As consumers we have benefited enormously from goods and services my parents never would have even imagined that a few wealthy investors took a chance on.

So the idea that the government might need to enact laws to insure that a venture capitalist’s investments do not reflect racial bias is shocking at several levels. “In the clubby world of venture capitalists, who spent $130 billion in the United States last year and helped anoint the world’s four most valuable companies and countless other successful start-ups, there is effectively no legal backstop that ensures people of color have an equal opportunity to share in its wealth creation.”   “Black-entrepreneurs-venture-capital”

First of all is the right of these investors to their property. They can give it all to their daughters if they want to.  Marxists and other egalitarians reject such a right but that would throw away the whole basis of the wealth our capitalist system has created that Marxists would like to redistribute.  But I want to focus on why capitalism minimizes the role of bias in our economic decisions.  This was explored long ago by Nobel Lauriat Gary Becker in his famous 1976 book on the Economics of Discrimination.

Becker’s basic point is that if your economic decision is influenced by racial or sexual or any other non-economic bias it will cost you money, i.e. you will make less than you otherwise would have.  If you hire a man when a woman was better qualified, he will contribute less to your company’s income than would have the woman, thus you pay a financial price for your bias. The same is true if you hire a white person when a black one was better qualified, etc.

The purpose of venture capitalist investments is to make a bundle by funding the next great idea. Most will fail but one or two turn into Facebook, or Amazon.  It may well be that a venture capitalist systematically under rates the potential of black entrepreneurs, i.e. that he suffers racial bias.  But in that case he will be less successful in his investments.  Capitalism will punish him for his prejudices and diminish his importance as a venture capitalist because it will diminish his wealth. None the less, an Irish venture capitalist may well bias her investments toward fellow Irishmen and a black venture capitalist may risk an extra break for a fellow black. But the profit motive of capitalism will discourage departures from objective evaluations of investment prospects.

The idea that a law should forbid or discourage racial or sexual bias when venture capitalists decide in what to invest is without merit.  Moreover, it is hard to imagine what such a law would look like and/or on what basis a government bureaucrat would overrule and direct the placement of a private investor’s chose of investments.

To peak briefly at the other–entrepreneurial–side of the equation, the unbiased opportunity provided by capitalism has attracted many foreigner entrepreneurs to our shores.  Steve Jobs (Apple, NeXT, Pixar), who was adopted at birth, was the son of Joanne Schieble who was Swiss-American and Abdulfattah “John” Jandali who was Syrian.  Steve Wozniak, Apple cofounder, was the son of Polish and Swiss-German parents.  Sergey Brin cofounder of Google/Alphabet escaped from the Soviet Union.  The famous architect, I.M. Pei, immigrated from China.  “How-12-immigrant-entrepreneurs-have-made-america-great”

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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3 Responses to Are Venture Capitalists racists?

  1. Craig J. Bolton says:

    Strange, I read Becker’s book on discrimination, and I could swear that he made points like “Discrimination is a good that (White) workers are willing to pay for in lower wages.” Sure you read the book?

    But let’s assume you’re right in your reading, then I guess that there really is no discrimination. Capital markets, particularly venture capital markets, are highly competitive. Since capital markets are generally created through pooling investor funds, rather than one guy using all his own funds, then discrimination would result in lower rates of return. Lower rates of return means that capital shifts elsewhere. Is this reflective of what we’ve seen in the US for a couple hundred years?

    • wcoats says:

      You and I both read Becker to say you must pay for bias—it is costly, so capitalism discourages it. Are you questioning whether capital has moved to its highest return?

  2. Joe Cobb says:

    We should not overlook the book by W.H. Hutt (1964) about origins and economic effects of Apartheid in South Africa, designed to disable the non-white population from competing against “unionized White workers.” The central idea came to S.A. from the British Fabians, of course.

    Click to access colour.pdf


    “The Economics of the Colour Bar: A Study of the Economic Origins and Consequences of Racial Segregation in South Africa.” He made the same arguments as Becker, I recall, but did not get the kind of recognition that accompanies the scholars at UChicago.

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