Summary: In his latest book, George Soros explains and defends his philanthropic work and the philosophy driving it. By seeing Soros as a principled human being who has philosophical ideas, we can critique Soros more productively, calmly and rationally taking on his philosophical ideas and combating them with our own.
Billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s new book In Defense of Open Society reads like his last will and testament, an attempt to ensure that his philanthropic work will have a respected legacy. The book is a collection of previously published essays and speeches selected by Soros to explain his worldview, along with some unpublished writings and a preface. Anyone who has not been living under a rock these past few years would know that Soros has been widely criticized by right-of-center people all around the globe, so it makes sense that he would defend his actions, especially when he openly admits that he is a “selfish man” who delights in recognition.
He defends his philanthropic activity chiefly by articulating his philosophy on life and politics, largely derived from the works of 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper. Soros says Popper’s theory of the “open society” has not only shaped his political philosophy and thus his Open Society Foundations philanthropy empire but also, interestingly, guided him in his career as an investor.
Popper theorized about political regimes according to a three-part schema: There are “organic societies” that operate based on tradition, “closed societies” that operate based on dogma and modern authoritarianism, and “open societies” that operate based on critical thinking, constantly seeking to make things more democratic and pluralistic, ensuring that the rule of law is ever equal and expanding to protect marginalized groups.
Soros is thoroughly convinced about this. He believes that Popper’s skeptical epistemology allowed him to become rich by escaping the ideologies of Marxism and what he calls free market economics’ “market fundamentalism” (i.e., the belief that markets are guided by rational principles and tend toward equilibrium). He says both ideologies are rooted in epistemologies that seek to establish objective truths.
These theories, Soros argues, rest on the idea that economics is a natural science akin to Newtonian physics rather than a social science. Social sciences are doubly affected by error: first by seeking to make observations about the very elusive and complex subjects that are human beings and their societies and, second, from the humans who record these observations who are themselves biased and invested in receiving particular results and who are imperfect organisms prone to making simple errors in reading the data correctly. This uncertain structure of belief that undergirds social science is referred to by Popper and Soros as “reflexivity.”
Soros says he has believed since his student days that economics should not to be conceived as an objective field but as a practice subject to reflexivity. (Popper was his professor and personal mentor at the London School of Economics.) This belief allowed him to make bets on the market in his hedge-fund days that others did not see and to predict the 2008 financial collapse when others denied it.
Because the market is not rational and is instead governed by human-induced feedback loops, Soros claims to have seen a negative feedback loop growing in the distance that would cause the economy to collapse. (Prices and values are the result of what humans think other humans need, not of human needs.)
Applying his abstract philosophy to concrete contemporary events, Soros’s main contention is that the international trend of “opening up” society hit a roadblock with the 2008 financial crisis. This has sent us on a decade-long detour from our route to complete global democracy, leading to the rise of what Soros sees as authoritarianism in the West, culminating in Trump, Brexit, and the ascents of various populist figures in continental European politics.
Soros is honest about who he is, repeatedly calling himself a selfish man, who sought money and recognition throughout his life to satisfy his large ego. But he argues that this selfishness was ultimately good, since he was able to cultivate it into a moral force through philanthropy.
However, Soros has little respect for billionaires who simply donate money to charities: He believes his organizations’ style of philanthropy is superior to the practice of donating money to the global poor because it actively attempts to flip undemocratic regimes into democracies and help them preserve their democratic status once they achieve it. (His son Alexander, who is heavily involved in the Open Society foundations, made a similar argument in an interview.)
In the next installment of “George Soros,” find out how Soros makes philanthropic contributions strategically.