77 North Washington Street


George Soros

THE Atlantic Monthly has always sought to draw on the perspectives not only of journalists, scholars, critics, and men and women of letters but also of those involved in practical affairs, as doctors, lawyers, jurists, diplomats, soldiers, politicians, and clerics -- not to mention those who fuel the global economy in their roles in the world of business. In this issue the financier and philanthropist George Soros mounts a defense of the "open society," a term whose meaning may be hard to pin down even though it embodies values that should be precious in the democratic societies of the West.

George Soros knows firsthand what an open society is not. Born in Hungary in 1930, he survived the Second World War living underground with his Jewish family in Nazi-controlled Budapest. The occupation of Hungary by the Russians after the war led to the installation of a Stalinist regime, and in 1947 Soros fled to London, where he enrolled at the London School of Economics. There he came under the spell of the philosopher Karl Popper, whose book The Open Society and Its Enemies has profoundly shaped his social thought. Soros next pursued a career in finance, first in London and then in New York, with extraordinary results. (The details have been recounted in these pages: see "The Unifying Theme," in the July, 1993, Atlantic.) Soros spent much of his fortune during the 1980s fostering civic and human-rights activities in communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and his efforts have grown since the collapse of communism, in 1989. Last year the various foundations created by Soros spent some $350 million, mainly in countries that are undergoing, it is hoped, the transition to democracy.

His causes are not uncontroversial. Soros has long championed the easing of some drug laws, and he personally helped to finance the recent successful referenda in California and Arizona permitting the use of certain proscribed drugs for medicinal purposes. Last fall Soros, a naturalized U.S. citizen, held a press conference to protest the new welfare-reform bill, which greatly restricts the public assistance available to legal immigrants to the United States. Soros backed up his criticism with $50 million to create the Emma Lazarus Fund, which will give legal immigrants various kinds of practical help as they seek to learn English and become citizens.

Transitions to democracy, it would seem, sometimes need to happen even in democracies.


The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 279, No. 2; page 6.