George Soros, In Defence of Open Society (John Murray, 2019)

A LIST of George Soros’s low-life detractors – from big fish like Vladimir Putin to small fry like Julius Malema flourishing in a groundswell of right-wing populism – is indicative of his beliefs and values. This book is a collection that might have been sub-titled ‘Collected Thoughts of a Maverick Hedge Fund Manager’. He is popularly, although not entirely accurately, known as the ‘man who broke the Bank of England’.

Soros describes himself as a selfish person who used his immense wealth to establish a selfless foundation. Philanthropy he considers primarily a matter of doing the right thing and initially he was his own loose cannon operating without a budget, with high flexibility, and burning his fingers in the politics of the former Soviet Union. A more measured and organised approach has subsequently been adopted by what is now known as the Open Society Foundations.

Soros, who was a child in wartime Hungary, believes that we are currently living in revolutionary times of ‘radical disequilibrium’, in which long-assumed rules no longer apply, and ‘sleepwalking into oblivion’. He names threats to democracy and the rule of law from populist nationalism and mafia states; and to personal autonomy from social media. We are under increasing surveillance from both state and commerce. (Internet operators seemingly devoid of social conscience Soros sees as potential public utilities.) A trend he particularly deplores is the undermining of professional values, particularly in law, medicine and journalism, by market forces. Callings have become businesses.

East European origins and his own father’s experiences in revolutionary Russia persuade Soros of the threat posed by Putin to the European Union. It is an institution avidly promoted by Soros, but he points to an urgent need for reform, of the Eurozone in particular, that creates an accommodating ‘multi-track’ body. He also advocates forthright policy regarding Russia by supporting Ukraine and the Baltic states.

The keys to an open society, Soros believes, are education and genuine critical and dissident thinking to bolster civil society and promote human wellbeing. Most famously he enabled the Central European University, perhaps unique in modern times for the fact that it was established by academics, now a globally networked institution. Academic freedom flourished even if administrative norms suffered. Soros has also intervened in the war on drugs, emphasising the minimisation of harm.

But the role of philosopher of economics seems to have been the most consistent product of his intellectual output. Soros, a student of Karl Popper, and masterly operator of financial markets is a stern critic of orthodox economics, which he regards as bankrupt. His somewhat obvious point that the objective laws of the physical sciences cannot simply be transferred to the subjective, fallible and often irrational world of human affairs was vindicated by the 2008 financial crash. The efficient market with its self-regulating equilibria is a myth. Capitalism is in crisis.

The very rich usually make their wealth in questionable fashion. The other side of the coin is the way in which they use it and Soros’s record ultimately stands up to scrutiny. Liberal democracies need all the help they can get, undermined as they are from within their own political systems.