The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George Soros is trying to change the system that made him rich

Can there be philanthropist billionaires in an open society?

George Soros speaks at an event on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

On a very warm day in late June 2019, I got onto the tram near the Budapest train station. I found a seat between people holding bouquets, beaming. We were all going to the Palace of Arts for Central European University’s last graduation in Budapest.

CEU was founded by George Soros in the early 1990s. It was meant to be both a place where students from the region could get a first-class education and, maybe more importantly, a counter to the nationalism that could have easily consumed Central and Eastern Europe after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. It became a world-renowned institution of higher education. So, too, did it become a target of Viktor Orbán’s government, which passed a law that essentially forced most of CEU’s operations out of the city. From the beginning, it had been an improbable reality, attacked by politicians when convenient. But that, to those who loved it, just underscored its importance. On the one hand, Soros himself created something that would not have existed without his billions. On the other, all those billions were not enough to create conditions in which that something could persist.

I’ve thought of this often in the year that’s followed. I think of it, for example, when conspiracy theorists allege that Soros is the puppet master controlling protests against police brutality. It’s a ludicrous claim, one that strips agency from the individuals fighting for an end to systemic violence against black Americans. But it resonates in part because Soros has given money to, among other things, criminal justice reform. Here, too, there is a befuddling irony: Soros’s money has arguably led to real gains in the criminal justice space. And yet, if money was less concentrated, especially in the hands of men like Soros, perhaps people would not need to rely on billionaire philanthropists for change.

“That is a real conversation that has really erupted in a mainstream way … the question is, how do you give in ways that reduce the power of rich people?” Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” told me. “I do think he really has an opportunity here.”

Soros has, in his own way, thought about these issues, or at least about how to more equitably distribute wealth. Scrolling through my phone as I waited for the ceremony to begin back at the Palace of Arts, I noticed that Laura Silber, Open Society’s top communications official, had tweeted out a New York Times article. It was about an open letter published on the website Medium in which a collective of very rich individuals called for “a moderate wealth tax on the fortunes of the richest one-tenth of the richest 1 percent of Americans — on us.” Signatories included Abigail Disney, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and George Soros, whose photo the Times had selected to adorn the virtual page. “A Message from the Billionaire’s Club: Tax Us,” the headline read. Alexander Soros, the son who Soros has signaled is interested in carrying on his work, had signed on, too.

The graduation itself, said Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector, was “obviously a bittersweet moment.” They were saying goodbye to this place — there would still be the CEU building, and the archives, and some programming. But the U.S.-accredited institution of higher education was moving to Vienna, and this seemed likely to be the last graduation in Budapest.

“That’s the bitter part,” he said, and then, to the students, added, “The sweet part is you.”

The whole thing was like that. It was a celebration for the students and a funeral for the university as it was. The moment was valedictory. The students were celebrating a graduation, degrees they’d managed to achieve even with tremendous political pressure coming down on their university from outside. But it was also mournful. This was the one institution that Soros had intended, on its founding, to outlast him. And while it wasn’t over, this version of it was.

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The degrees were awarded and the students lined up department by department, program by program, degree by degree, one by one. The political science program alone had students from Argentina, Russia, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Slovakia, the United States, Ukraine, Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, India, Hungary, North Macedonia, Serbia, China, Romania, the Czech Republic and Germany.

I wondered who, 30 years ago, could have imagined that all of those people from all of those places would graduate with political science degrees in Budapest. And then I realized that, of course, there was one person who could have, and did. That person was George Soros, who had always aspired toward just such a cosmopolitan community of learning and intellectual exchange.

The next day I went to see Istvan Rev, who had been with CEU since the beginning and is now its archival director. Toward the end of our interview, I asked him what he made of Soros’s legacy, his influence. Could you, looking around the world — at his country, at mine — say that it was moot?

You couldn’t, he told me. Or he wouldn’t, anyway. Soros tried to build something. It may look, now, like what he’d spent his life building was destroyed. But that doesn’t mean he never should have tried.

Would it have been better, he asked me, if Soros had spent his money on paintings?

I did not answer Rev, because I did not have my answer then. I am not sure I have it now. But I think that it would not have been better if Soros had spent his money on paintings. And it is remarkable that he did not. And that, even when being blamed for creating the world’s evils while trying to do what he considered to be good in Hungary and around the world over the course of the 1990s and especially in the 2000s and, now, as he’s accused of being behind the coronavirus pandemic and orchestrating protests against police brutality, still he did not pack up his toys and go home. It is remarkable that what mattered, and matters, to him was and is creating conditions for more people to be more able to live with decency and dignity, and to share their voices, and to contribute their own fallacies and fallibility in the hope that all of us together might reach clearer understanding. Soros grew up in a world where people are free to become billionaires. The fact that he used his billions to try to open society is to his credit, and that the reality is that he was able to do as much as he did because he made money before trying to live his values.

But it is also my opinion that he should not have had the billions to begin with, because a society in which one person can amass so much personal wealth, power, and influence while some don’t have any can never be open.

The people to whom I spoke, from Bosnia to Baltimore, while researching my new book, “The Influence of Soros,” were grateful that Soros gave them his money, and each one said that he gave it without trying to exert undue influence. But he had the kind of money that could change things and the people I spoke with didn’t. This is, to a certain extent, the paradox of and the problem with billionaire philanthropists: At the end of the day, they’re still the ones with the money, and the power to decide what to do with it. But it’s a tension one sees more clearly when the philanthropist in question is working from the central idea that everyone should have an equal chance at participating fully in society (and throwing his personal financial backing behind particular politicians in the process).

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That the global financial system as it exists is incompatible with an open society is something Soros himself has admitted repeatedly. “My defense is that I operate within the rules,” Soros said in 1995. “If there is a breakdown in the rules, that is not my fault as a lawful participant but the fault of those who set the rules. I think that is a very sound and justified position, and I have absolutely no moral qualms in being branded a speculator … I think that it behooves the authorities to design a system that does not reward speculators. When speculators profit, the authorities have failed in some way or another.”

And it wasn’t only unchecked speculation that he criticized. “I believe we must strive for certain fundamental values, such as social justice, which cannot be attained by unrestrained competition,” he said that same year. “It is exactly because I have been successful in the marketplace that I can afford to advocate those values. I am the classic limousine liberal. I believe that it behooves those who have benefited from the system that they should exert themselves to make the system better.”

“Systemic reforms need broad public participation and support,” Soros wrote in 2011. “That is what makes them irreversible.”

A wealth tax “would make America healthier. It is a fair way of creating opportunity. And it strengthens American freedom and democracy,” the letter that he and his son signed on to in 2019 read. “It is not in our interest to advocate for this tax, if our interests are quite narrowly understood. But the wealth tax is in our interest as Americans.”

One could argue that this is hypocritical — that it’s easy to criticize a system that allows people to amass great sums of money through speculation after one has done exactly that. That regret at a financial system is easy to express after one has used it to become rich, live in luxury and exert great influence.

But one could also argue that it is the natural conclusion of a life’s work spent trying to create a more equitable world. Soros’s life has, in some ways, always been defined by this dissonance, this tension. That tension has to give.

I do not think it would have been better for the world if Soros had spent his money on paintings. I do think that if there is to be an open society, and if the roots of inequality within and between countries are to be addressed, more people need to be less dependent on eccentric and impassioned billionaires.

Today, it’s clear that Soros, for all his faults, was ahead of his time in identifying the problems that now threaten all of us: the rise of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc; the tendency to treat drug addiction like a criminal problem; the role that propagandistic right-wing news could play in this country. I wonder if, toward the end of his life, he could be ahead of his time in reducing the reliance on and power of billionaire philanthropists, too.

This essay is excerpted from “The Influence of Soros.”

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