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'An open society is an imperfect society'

September 20, 2006 09:01 IST
In the first segment of an exclusive, extensive interview with Rediff India Abroad, billionaire financier George Soros spoke of 9/11, and of the folly of American foreign policy.

Part I: 'America got carried away with the war on terror'
Part II: 'Top leadership of Al Qaeda is hiding in Pakistan'

He spoke, too, of plans to traveling to India, in the hope of working with those who wanted to improve relations between Pakistan and India.

The interview, against the background of his latest book The Age of Fallibility, discussed why US President George W Bush's policies around the world, and particularly in Iraq, have created more problems than before the American invasion, and how human rights are curtailed and terrorism has become stronger.

"When the most powerful nation on earth distorts the truth, disregards world opinion and flouts international law, the world order is in great peril," mused Soros, who has made it a mission to oppose Bush and the policies of the Republican party.

Soros, 75, head of Soros Fund Management, was born in Budapest, Hungary. He survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and left communist Hungary in 1947 for England, where he graduated from the London School of Economics.

While a student at LSE, Soros became familiar with the work of the philosopher Karl Popper, a relentless critic of totalitarian societies, who had a profound influence on his thinking and later on his professional and philanthropic activities. Soros has no religion; he calls himself a stateless statesman.

In the concluding part of his interview to Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais, Soros discusses how the ideal of an open society is an endless search for perfection.

Your book argues for a transparent and open society ruled by those who are always accountable. In Sonia Shah's recent book The Body Hunters, she documents at length how new drugs are tested on the world's poorest patients, including Indians. How is it that in an open society like America, there is very little concern over such inequities?

Actually, there are recent reports of efforts to restart testing new drugs on American prisoners, a practice with a terrible history in this country. In my definition, an open society is an imperfect society that holds itself open to improvement.

There are many imperfections in an open society like America. Perfection is unattainable. But in an open society, you can work for improvement. This testing of new drugs on vulnerable populations is one of the areas where there is room for improvement.

Thank goodness there are people like you paying attention to it, but there are many, many issues that need to be addressed. We will never come to the end of it -- which is not surprising.

Though many newspapers and a few books are highlighting this problem of drug tests on the world's poorest, there is hardly any reaction in what you call a feel-good society.

Because of the availability of information, we suffer from a kind of overdose of social problems. In a way, it creates a kind of immunity. There are so many things to be upset about; yet we are not upset at all about many things. Because there is only so much we can tolerate, we tend to become immune. This is true of all sorts of human rights violations.

You have said that you plan to visit India soon. Since you were born in Hungary, I must tell you that my wife and I visited Hungary about 10 years ago. Life is more efficient in Western Europe, but people are friendlier in Eastern Europe.

Yes, people are friendlier. There is also an affection for India in Hungary, and a mystical relationship with India. As a child, I grew up reading the Panchatantra; there was a beautiful translation in Hungarian of the animal fables.

I remember reading many years ago that when you went to Britain as a refugee, you had serious health problems. In that context, you talked about how affirmative action is important to immigrants.

I had a very good experience with the national health system in the United Kingdom. I broke my leg and I was looked after, it was a wonderful feeling of security when you are incapacitated. That was a lasting memory for me.

In America these days, in context of the ongoing debate about immigration, people say illegal immigrants do not deserve health services and free education. What are your thoughts on that?

I think illegal immigration is a very serious problem. It creates a tremendous amount of human suffering and exploitation. Therefore, it needs to be regularised, and the Senate's compromise bill is basically a correct measure, while the Republican bill has a much more restrictive approach. I clearly prefer the Senate version.

What appeals to you most about the Senate version?

It will reduce the size of the illegal population and give them a chance to become legalised. That is what needs to be done.

How about the people who have not become legalised for whatever reason -- do they still deserve social services in America?

Yes, and it is in America's interests to provide these services. Otherwise, you have an increasingly stratified society. But it's an extremely complicated subject, with no prefect solution.

I think you can have improvement, but you cannot have a perfect system. Globalisation includes freedom of movement for goods but not for people. The resultant inequality induces people to go to the rich countries. So there must be some limits on immigration. But how to have those limits with the least suffering and least injustice is the task, and the question.

You have talked about the role of civil society (as opposed to the government and its agencies) in improving the openness and transparent way of governing. The non-government agencies are a part of this open society, aren't they?

A crucial role of a civil society is to help keep government honest. Funds for the support of civil society are often difficult to obtain, as most philanthropists do not like to get involved in this arena, which is perceived as too controversial.

So I see supporting civil society as one of the important roles of my foundation. And yet I am also aware that Professor Mahmud Mamdani has said that NGOs have destroyed civil society, because they are financed by private foundations like mine.

I think he has a point. NGOs are not necessarily always right, and there can be serious questions about their legitimacy.

While discussing the search for oil by countries such as India and China, you write in your book that a civil society, including the NGOs, can exert pressure on multinationals but not in China and India. How can you put India and China on the same plane?

India is a vibrant democracy; but India also suffers from a shortage of oil and is very much in the same position as China in trying to gain access to oil reserves.

It is questionable whether this is a valid policy, because oil is internationally traded. Therefore it may be just a sense of insecurity that drives China -- and India -- to acquire oil reserves all over the world by making special deals with Venezuela and so on.

Certainly, China has been a spoiler in dealing with rogue regimes in the Sudan and all over Africa, for example. India has not done that much; China has been in the forefront. But India has been making some moves in that direction.

Arthur J Pais