DAVOS, Switzerland, February 2, 2014 — Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), welcomed attendees at the annual WEF meeting in Davos last month. Among the 2500 attending were 1500 business leaders and 300 public figures.
Schwab said that the annual gathering of some of the world’s richest and most powerful people is held because “we want to live up to the mission of the World Economic Forum, improving the state of the world.” This is a noble sentiment, but is it possible for WEF participants to solve the world’s problems? Most are, after all, business people, not politicians.
Among the artists, tycoons and politicians who go to Davos, there is no lack of vanity. Those who gathered there may believe their own propaganda, but for corporate leaders to say they will solve the world’s problems is nothing short of hubris. Their expertise is mostly business, not politics, and even the politicians who attend are less powerful than they believe.
Business is about maximizing profits. To ask business leaders to solve problems created by politics and to invite them to help craft laws is asking for trouble. As an interest group, the laws they support will inevitably be good for them, but the odds aren’t good for the rest of us.
This is true of any interest group. Even with the best of intentions, they see the world in their own terms. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If you ask the military to run a country, every problem can be resolved at the point of a gun. Ask poets to run a country, and they will try to legislate utopia; in their idealism, the Byrons of the world have a thirst for blood. Ask unions to run a country, and they’ll try to create a workers’ paradise. Religious leaders will, like poets and union men, try to impose their ideals on an ungrateful people, and they’ll spill oceans of blood to do it.
The world needs balance. Each group should have its say, even businessmen and women and politicians. But with Davos we get a cult of expertise, the idea that because of their power, their wealth and their success, these people are uniquely talented, uniquely informed, and uniquely positioned to solve our problems.
We should not reject Davos and the worthies of the WEF out of hand. It is important, though, that we understand their interests and their limitations. Free markets might create vast wealth and economic liberty, but business has little interest in free markets, preferring captive markets instead. Allowing business to twist laws for the good of business is not and will never be liberty.
It is up to all of us to decide the direction society will take. The input of experts is vital, but we must avoid cults of expertise at all costs. Wisdom and knowledge are spread throughout society, not concentrated in the hands of a single group. If we leave it to them, the solutions we get will suit their interests, not ours.
The free market is a by product of equality before the law; its hallmarks are freedom and liberty. Free markets, like democracy, depend on the informed, mature participation of an adult citizenry; they aren’t systems suitable for children.
The world needs more liberty and more equality before the law. It needs to ensure that phenomena like the free market are a default. Business people get things done, and those who attend the conference at Davos are among the best in the world, but free markets don’t exist for the sake of business, but for the sake of individual consumers. Businesspeople are one vital part of the equation, but so is everyone else. Artists, soldiers, blue-collar workers and physicians are all important to our society, and all have wisdom and knowledge that are essential to its operation. Liberty favors none of them, it is neutral to all, and so to must be the law.