by Chidem Kurdas
George Soros originally intended to wind down his Open Society Foundations at the end of his life but changed his mind. This worldwide network of activist groups – to whom he has given more than $8 billion and named after Karl Popper’s classic The Open Society and Its Enemies – is to continue operating after he’s gone.
In Eastern Europe, the network helped undermine communist regimes and bring about freer societies. The main mission ascribed by Mr. Soros is to hold governments accountable in countries that lack civil institutions. It has to be a bitter irony that he sees the United States, the long-time home of many such institutions, in serious danger of ceasing to be an open society, given the increasingly manipulative and deceptive public discourse.
He was an early and aggressive backer of Barack Obama apparently in the belief that the then presidential candidate would stop the dangerous trend. Now he is disappointed. In a New York Review of Books article he writes that Obama’s “election and inauguration were the high points of his presidency.”
Nevertheless, Soros remains in the Democratic camp, complaining that “The Republican propaganda machine was able to convince people that the financial crisis was due to government failure, not market failure.”
He does not dispute that there were government failures but points out: “both markets and government regulations are bound to fall short of perfection.” Indeed, this is obvious when one considers our mental limits. Given that human beings with cognitive biases constitute both markets and government, neither realm can be perfect. Thus markets are subject to cyclical fluctuations.
It’s the policy response that is the issue. There is a tendency to expand the government regardless of its failures while shrinking the private realm. Government failure results in more government while market failure is used to justify less market.
Mr. Soros laments that political discourse today is not about understanding and coming to grips with reality but rather about staying in power. That’s nothing new, though idealists have long thought otherwise. Two millennia ago, Cicero criticized his colleague Cato: “He speaks in the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’s cesspool.” (from a biography, Cicero by Anthony Everitt.)
In fact Plato’s Republic, ruled by philosophical guardians who were to oversee every aspect of life, would have been a repressive horror, as Popper argued. It most closely resembles centralized communist states, including Cambodia under Pol Pot.
But Cicero’s republic-as-cesspool analogy resonates through time. The American founders, knowing their Cicero and Roman history, were mindful of this. They kept the cesspool small and limited, leaving the rest of society to function freely. But over time it flooded and engulfed much of civil life and the economy. Government grows at the expense of civil institutions while the economy is on its way to crony capitalism, if not already there.
I do not doubt that Mr. Soros is well meaning and that his foundations are a great gift to Eastern Europe. But he is fundamentally mistaken about the danger facing the US. The real danger is uncontrolled and unlimited government. That is the reason everything appears to be ruled by propaganda and lobbyists, the reason it looks like there is a malaise in American society, as he remarks. The cesspool has spilled over.
As a young man Soros studied with Popper, who in his 1945 The Open Society correctly identified the defects of socially engineered systems. Hayek was a friend and supporter of Popper. Perhaps Mr. Soros needs to revisit both Hayek and Popper.