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Can George Soros Save the World?

SOROS: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, By Michael T. Kaufman, Alfred A. Knopf: 344 pp., $27.50 ON GLOBALIZATION, By George Soros, PublicAffairs: 192 pp., $20

September 01, 2002|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is the author of numerous books, including "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis." He is a contributing writer to Book Review and has worked for the Soros foundations over the years and sits on the board of their Central Asian initiative.

Can democracy be fostered, or even created, by undemocratic means? Does it matter if the institution doing this fostering is the creation and extension of one very rich person who need not stand for office, take into account the wishes of an electorate or indeed consult anyone or anything except his bankers, his conscience, and experts to whom he may listen to or not, as he pleases, and staff he may hire or dismiss as he sees fit? The extraordinary career of George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire investor, and his Open Society Network demonstrate, if demonstration were necessary, how pressing the question really is.

On biographical form, Soros is an unlikely political and social reformer. Born into a bourgeois Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, Soros barely survived the Nazi era. At 17, he immigrated to London, where, at the London School of Economics, he came under the influence of Sir Karl Popper, one of whose books, "The Open Society and Its Enemies," provided Soros with both the title and the template for his democratic activism. Put crudely, Popper's view was that the fundamental conflict in the modern world pitted the "open" societies of the West against the "closed" worlds of communism and fascism. It was the kind of schema that was bound to appeal to a young man who had almost died at the hands of both kinds of totalitarianism.

Soros wanted to be a philosopher, but Popper discouraged the ambition. Winston Churchill once said that a man can tie his fate to the mast of action or the mast of thought, but never to both, and perhaps the great philosopher discerned that his young Hungarian pupil had more aptitude for the former than for the latter. In any case, Soros went into business and became, first in London and then in New York, one of the great financial speculators of his time and a pioneer of an investment instrument that, at the time, was still something of a novelty, the hedge fund.

Far from showing traces of idealism in his business life, Soros was, if anything, known for ruthlessness. The mantra of the Gordon Gekko character in the film "Wall Street"--"greed is good"--would have served Soros perfectly well. His most famous coup was in 1992, when he gambled that the British government would be unable to protect the value of the pound sterling. Soros made more than a billion dollars, an achievement that led the British press to dub him "The Man Who Broke the Bank of England" and was said to have cost every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom 12 pounds.

But while amassing his great fortune in the financial markets, Soros also did something utterly unprecedented: He shifted the great bulk of his energies to using the money he accumulated in perhaps the most extraordinarily idealistic and systematic effort by any single individual in modern history to change the world.

Not for him the single-issue obsessions of his fellow plutocrats, whether education, art, Israel or alma mater. Even an ambition as vast as that of Microsoft's founder Bill Gates' to cure diseases like AIDS and malaria pales before what Soros has attempted. He has committed himself to reforming not one but virtually every aspect of global society and global governance. And from transforming early childhood education to unseating totalitarian regimes and replacing them with liberal capitalist democracies to, more recently, reforming the international financial architecture under whose auspices he profited so extraordinarily but which he is now convinced stands in desperate need of reform, little has escaped the attention of his worldwide network.

The formative work of his foundations in the late 1970s that would eventually coalesce into the Open Society Institute, with more than 40 projects and national foundations in scores of countries from South Africa to Burma and a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, took place in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where their efforts were crucial in undermining the communist system and, later, in shoring up the fledgling democracies that succeeded it. Soros' name may be known only among the elite in America, but in the former Soviet Union, he is a living legend, justifiably so.

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