Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

"Let me tell you about the very rich," confides F Scott Fitzgerald, so quotably, in "Rich Boy". "They are different from you and me." "Yes, they have more money," riposted the even more quotable Ernest Hemingway. That was then, in the prehistoric age when equality still mattered. Now, the super-class of the seriously loaded expect more than just the lion's share of assets and honour. They insist on monopolising virtue and wisdom as well. Bill Gates offloads the multi-billions earned from Microsoft to Third World causes, while wizard investor Warren Buffett swiftly plays catch-up with his giant giveaways. Along with the cash comes the credibility, as ruthless players in software or stockmarkets make themselves over into experts on human welfare. Welcome to the world of the Thinking Rich, where philanthropy marries philosophy.

Behind Gates and every slightly poorer wannabe stands the man who wrote the book (or several) on staggering generosity with a social agenda. George Soros, the Hungarian-born fund manager, began his extraordinary career as the patron of liberal democracy when he bankrolled scholarships for black students in South Africa. Through the many bodies operating the umbrella of his Open Society Institute, he later had a hand in every post-Soviet push for freedom from the Czech reformers of Charter 77 to (or so I heard in Kiev last year) Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004. His family of foundations disburses around $400m every year, and - as a personal initiative - he spent $27.5m trying to prevent the re-election of his bitter enemy, George W Bush, in 2004.

Soros's latest tract, The Age of Fallibility (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), recaps his progress from studies at the LSE with Hayek and the creation of his "open society" creed, through his legendary skill at making big money in crazy times ("far-from-equilibrium situations") up to his current campaign to bring transparency to the fuel and mining industries. He also mounts a sweeping tour d'horizon of global challenges, with all its lordly views united by his fierce disdain for Bush's blundering, short-sighted America and "the weaknesses of a feel-good society".

This is a work - part-memoir, part-sermon, part policy-seminar - that dares compare the Bush administration with Nazi and Communist dictatorships, excoriates Vice-President Dick Cheney as "a paranoid, Strangelove kind of character", and fluently dismantles the entire "war on terror" as a sort of primitive category error. It hails the European tradition of "social justice" and, from prologue to appendix, chucks Soros's weight behind liberal positions of a kind that (for instance) this paper generally supports.

Why, then, did his book leave me bristling with suspicion? Because the arrogance of footloose finance-power dies hard. A grandiose sense of entitlement rises from every page like the aroma of fresh banknotes. When the masses disappoint him, as did the US electorate, he brushes them off with a sneer: "people do not care about the truth". And beware the benign moneybags who funds a congress on democracy and then mocks it as a "useless talkfest". Useless to whom? The hubris of the messenger cancels the message.

Remember, too, that Soros used to make the power of bourses trump the power of ballots. In April 1992, Britain elected the Conservatives; in September 1992, on Black Wednesday, Soros and his speculator friends effectively de-selected them - for the next 15 years. The end did not justify the means. He may have poured money into progressive causes from Novosibirsk to New Orleans. But Soros can still boast less political legitimacy than the dimmest redneck-Republican dog-catcher who wins a real vote out in the Bush-backing boondocks that he so loves to hate.