George Soros is in his mid eighties. “This is his last active decade,” said Anna Porter in her new book Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy. “He has been in feverish overdrive since his seventieth birthday, wishing to accomplish what he set out to do back in his fifties: inspire people to embrace ‘open society’ and convince the world of intellectuals that his theories and ideas are fundamental to understanding the human condition.”
Titans of industry have long sought redemption and some measure of immortality in the charitable work they have undertaken. Think Nobel, Carnegie, Rockefeller and Pew. Men today like Bill Gates and Toronto’s Peter Munk carry on in much the same tradition, endowing charitable works and academic institutions with their very public benevolence. As Porter reveals, Soros is consumed with an even grander vision: to use his riches to promulgate his own ideas in an attempt to steer the broad course of events. Whether in central Europe’s emergence from communism, Africa’s battle with corruption or America’s struggle with inequality, he aims at nothing less than to have the world bend to his will and the grand arc of human history shaped by his monumental ego.
But is he actually a philanthropist—a “lover of humanity”? The same question could be asked of other billionaire donors. In Soros’s case, he has, Porter tells us, “such a low opinion of human nature that he is rarely surprised by what we do to ourselves.” It is not clear whether her book’s title is meant to be ironic. Can one “buy a better world”? Is “billionaire philanthropy” an oxymoron?
As detailed in previous biographies of Soros and quickly sketched by Porter, he spent his earliest years as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Hungary, as his father concealed the family’s Jewish identity. Without delving into pop psychology, it is safe to say that experience coloured his world view, including his distaste for the “tribal loyalty” of Jewish people worldwide. Now, in the interviews granted to Porter, he provides little evidence of empathy or compassion. Rather, he appears an imperious figure uninterested in the views of others and impatient when people, including presidents and prime ministers, fail to see the world on his terms.
He made his fortune as a hedge fund manager and currency speculator who undermined national economies by precipitating runs on the British pound and, later, the Russian ruble. His support for financial regulation is analogous to the funding of a peace prize by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish armaments manufacturer who invented dynamite, and yet he has spent a great part of his fortune on projects that promote political empowerment, anti-corruption and a fairer society, values that form the bedrock of functioning democracy. Soros sees himself not so much as a charitable donor but a public intellectual and social activist with, as Porter puts it, “very specific ideas about how to change the world.”
Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which finance projects around the world, are founded on seven core principles, or what he calls the conditions needed for an open society: regular, free and fair elections; a free and pluralistic media; the rule of law upheld by an independent judiciary; constitutional protection for minority rights; a market economy with a safety net and opportunities for the disadvantaged; the peaceful resolution of conflict; and the enforcement of laws to curb corruption.
His greatest project came in eastern and central Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain and break-up of the Soviet Union. Soros spent huge sums supporting liberal politicians, creating think tanks and even founding the Central European University in Budapest, all with the aim of entrenching liberal democracy. The New Republic magazine once described him as “the single most powerful foreign influence in the former Soviet empire.” Not all his influence turned out as planned. In his native Hungary, young men whom he supported as emerging liberal leaders have embraced a virulent form of nationalism and intolerance for dissent. In Russia, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Soros’s ally, had his business confiscated and was jailed on what western observers insist were trumped up charges in a bid by Vladimir Putin to crush opposition.
Soros was an easy target for Putin, who demonized him as conspiring with corrupt oligarchs to undermine the Russian state. Ironically, Putin’s denunciation foreshadowed a similar line of attack from a slew of right-wing commentators in the West. In particular Soros has become the bête noire of the American right for his support of liberal causes and politicians. For example, his foundations have been a prominent force in the effort to reform a harsh penal system that has been devastating to African-American men. He is also denigrated by the right for his public pronouncements on the dangers of American exceptionalism.
Here in Canada, Finance Minister Joe Oliver invoked Soros’s name in his campaign against environmental groups launched in January 2012. Oliver, who at the time was natural resources minister, decried environmental groups such as Tides Canada that opposed Canadian oil sands pipelines while being funded by what Oliver referred to as “billionaire socialists,” naming Soros as an example.
In the United States, Soros is seen as serving as a counterpoint to the Koch brothers, the controversial industrialists who bankroll the Republicans’ libertarian Tea Party movement and lobby aggressively to dismantle America’s social safety net and environmental regulations. Liberals and leftists paint the Koch brothers as a malevolent force, in terms similar to those conservatives use for Soros. While the Kochs finance the Tea Party, Soros has been a major funder of Barack Obama and, now, Hillary Clinton.
But New York Times columnist Frank Rich has noted the key difference between the Kochs and Soros. Although David Koch has made some large donations to medical and cultural institutions, the Kochs typically finance political activity likely to improve the profitability of their energy and industrial empire. Soros supports causes that are unrelated or indeed antithetical to his business interests. The Kochs pursue a libertarian agenda grounded in social Darwinism; Soros embraces a liberal ideal in which the state provides a moral foundation and checks the worst excesses of a capitalist economy.
Will he succeed? Porter, who like Soros is Hungarian by birth and has published two previous Hungarian-themed works of non-fiction, suggests that his impact may not be as demonstrably effective as he would wish.
Soros, now living his third life as a public intellectual (speculator and philanthropist were the first two), is hated by many people throughout Europe and the United States. While that may be the fate of all soothsayers, in his case it matters a great deal because those who could change the way the world functions are not listening to him.
Porter ends her book on an almost wistful note—that Soros’s lasting legacy may be limited to the university in Budapest. That would be “ironic,” she says, “because the one thing that Soros has never wanted was an edifice, a building to house his ideas.” But if he finds it possible to set aside his ego, Soros can take pride if not in his attainment of an ideal, at least in his strenuous effort of its pursuit. He has put his shoulder to the wheel—and his fortune to the service—to achieve a more open and just society. Surely, that is legacy enough for any man.