How much further will it go to appease the non-democratic holders of oil wealth or American debt? After its major banks and corporations have succumbed to the influence that multi-billion dollar investment stakes invariably enjoy, will American foreign policy someday become a commodity to be bought and sold like offshore-made pieces of patio furniture at a local Wal-Mart?
There have been many voices at the World Economic Forum this week. There were the voices for combating climate change and the fight against poverty in Africa. There was the voice of Bill Gates, who, judging by media reaction and the response at Davos, single-handedly invented the concept of responsible capitalism. All these are worthy objectives. But one voice seemed notably muted: the voice for democracy.
The fact is that this annual gathering attracts the kind of person who can seamlessly traverse the worlds of freedom and dictatorship with remarkable ease. Their rights are never in doubt. What counts is power and wealth. There is no discrimination at Davos. A Communist Party official or the dictator of Pakistan is feted as lavishly as a billionaire hedge fund manager. Yahoo and Google are active in China and have shown themselves willing to cooperate with that country’s repressive rules. Most other Davos member-companies display few qualms about where they do business. The United States seems bent on attracting sovereign wealth funds with few questions being asked about the regimes that control them. As an anecdotal aside, we noted with interest this official posting on a WEF website:
Ruler? Really? Some of us might think we had stumbled into the wrong place, perhaps even the wrong century, if we read something like that at a gathering in which we were participating.
Mr. Gates has set out a laudable goal in encouraging the engine of capitalism to work harder for the passengers it has left behind. It is not a new idea. Some of us who have been working to advance that concept for a few decades have gained a certain perspective on the subject. It is informed by a view that places considerable importance on freedom and democracy as essential pillars in the advancement of economic progress, and great emphasis on ethical leaders who are prepared to stand up for fundamental values such as fairness and respect for the individual and against the abuses of power and greed. People crave to be led by authentic figures of genuine character. If it is the desire of those who govern and control capitalism that it help to alleviate poverty and suffering, their first duty is to recognize that it must do no harm. Business that can do that in the world today in the production of goods and in its treatment of workers and customers will go a long way to advancing Mr. Gates’s ideals. Some may find it revealing that while Mr. Gates’s session was among the best attended of the conference, a later program on the Economics of Inequality was so small that it did not even rate being included among the WEF’s 55 webcasts.
The great challenge that poverty poses cannot be fully tackled until the shackles of corruption and tyranny are removed. This is one of the reasons why we continue to have serous reservations about the rise of sovereign wealth funds that are extensions of regimes and royal families where freedom, democracy and transparency are not exactly on the to-do list. When America begins to embrace these investment vehicles in the manner it has, it dims the light that has served as a beacon of hope, freedom and democracy around the world. It also begins to erode the fundamental connection that has always existed between the idea of free people and prosperity.
We recently asked: What does it say when an America that once saved the world is now turning cap-in-hand to a collection of anti-democratic regimes from Dubai to China to bail out its subprime hobbled banks? The need for answers does not end there. If present trends in the wealth generation of these funds, about which so little is known, continue, what will American capitalism look like in a decade or more? We know that some of these funds are historically advocates of neither modern governance practices nor human rights. What will the changes in America’s corporate governance landscape look like? Will America, too, begin to back away from its goals of well-governed corporations in transparent markets? At the very least, some important principles need to be laid down before the journey moves too far down this rather dark and unmapped road.
If you want an example of the arrogance of sovereign wealth that has spent too much time in the hands of unaccountable stewards, take a look at this recent CNBC video interview of Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of Dubai’s investment group. The world indeed seems to quake in fear that it might offend regimes that increasingly hold sway over its economic fate. How much further will it go to appease the holders of oil wealth or American debt? After its major banks and corporations have succumbed to the influence that multi-billion dollar investment stakes invariably enjoy, will American foreign policy someday become a commodity to be bought and sold like offshore-made pieces of patio furniture at a local Wal-Mart?
Democracy, with all its imperfections, especially in recent years, has an unfinished mission. It is the greatest tool for lifting people out of misery and into the hope of a better life. And that will be a life where men and women are governed by laws and the right to hold power to account, not by the whims of party central committees or Middle Eastern potentates.
It does not assist the task of freeing the world from the grip of penury and oppression when men and women who have been made wealthy by the benefits of Western freedom demure from defending it against the encroaching economic power of dictatorships, which is why we think the silence of these otherwise commanding voices in business and government at the World Economic Forum is the Outrage of the Week.