Part I. Conceptual Framework
1. Fallibility and Reflexivity...................................3
2. A Critique of Economics......................................28
3. Reflexivity in Financial Markets.............................47
4. Reflexivity in History.......................................59
5. Open Society.................................................84
Part II: The Present Moment in History
6. The Global Capitalist System................................101
7. The Global Financial Crisis.................................135
8. How to Prevent Collapse.....................................175
9. Toward an Open Society......................................195
10. The International Context..................................214
11. The Open Society Agenda....................................226
The Crisis of Global Capitalism
By George Soros
Open Society Endangered
(C) 1998 George Soros
All rights reserved.
Read BW's Review of This Book
Fallibility and Reflexivity
Strange as it may seem for someone who has made his reputation
and his fortune in the very practical world of business,
my financial success and my political outlook have rested
largely on a number of abstract philosophical ideas. Until
these are understood, none of the other arguments presented in this
book, whether on financial markets, geopolitics, or economics, can
make much sense. This is why the rather abstract discussion of the
next two chapters is required. Specifically, it is necessary to explain in
detail the three key concepts on which all my other ideas--and most
of my actions in business and philanthropy--are founded. These
concepts are fallibility, reflexivity, and open society. Such abstract
nouns may seem far removed from the everyday world of politics and
finance. One of the main purposes of this book is to convince the
reader that these concepts go to the heart of the real world of affairs.
Thinking and Reality
I must start at the beginning, with an old philosophical question
that seems to lie at the root of many other problems. What is the
relationship between thinking and reality? This is, I admit, a very
roundabout way of approaching the world of affairs but it cannot be
avoided. Fallibility means that our understanding of the world in
which we live is inherently imperfect. Reflexivity means that our
thinking actively influences the events in which we participate and
about which we think. Because there is always a divergence
between reality and our understanding of it, the gap between the
two, which I call the participants' bias, is an important element in
shaping the course of history. The concept of open society is based
on the recognition of our fallibility. Nobody is in possession of the
ultimate truth. This may seem obvious enough to ordinary readers,
but it is a fact that political and economic decision makers, and even
academic thinkers, are often unwilling to accept. This refusal to
accept the inherent gap between reality and our thinking has had a
far-reaching, and historically very dangerous, impact.
The relationship between thinking and reality has been, in one
form or another, at the center of philosophical discourse ever since
people became aware of themselves as thinking beings. The discussion
proved to be very fertile. It has allowed the formulation of
basic concepts such as truth and knowledge and it has provided the
foundations of scientific method.
It is no exaggeration to say that the distinction between thinking
and reality is necessary for rational thought. But beyond a certain
point, the separation of thought and reality into independent categories
runs into difficulties. Although it is desirable to separate
statements and facts, it is not always possible. In situations that have
thinking participants, the thoughts of these participants are part of
the reality about which they have to think. It would be foolish not
to distinguish between thinking and reality and to treat our view of
the world as if it were the same as the world itself; but it is just as
wrong to treat thinking and reality as if they were totally separate
and independent. People's thinking plays a dual role: It is both a
passive reflection of the reality they seek to understand and an
active ingredient in shaping the events in which they participate.
There are, of course, events that occur independently of what
anybody thinks; these phenomena, such as the movement of planets,
form the subject matter of natural science. Here thinking plays a purely
passive role. Scientific statements may or may not correspond to the
facts of the physical world, but in either case the facts are separate and
independent of the statements that refer to them. Social events, however,
have thinking participants. Here the relationship between
thinking and reality is more complicated. Our thinking is part of reality;
it guides us in our actions and our actions have an impact on what
happens. The situation is contingent on what we (and others) think
and how we act. The events in which we participate do not constitute
some sort of independent criterion by which the truth or falsehood
of our thoughts could be judged. According to the rules of logic,
statements are true if, and only if, they correspond to the facts. But
in situations that have thinking participants, the facts do not occur
independently of what the participants think; they reflect the impact
of the participants' decisions. As a result, they may not qualify as an
independent criterion for determining the truth of statements. That
is the reason why our understanding is inherently imperfect. This is
not an abstruse philosophical debating point, comparable to Berkeley's
question about whether the cow in front of him ceases to exist
when he turns his back. When it comes to decision making, there is
an inherent lack of correspondence between thinking and reality
because the facts lie somewhere in the future and are contingent on
the participants' decisions.
The lack of correspondence is an important factor in making the
world the way it is. It has far-reaching implications both for our
thinking and for the situations in which we participate--implications
that are deliberately ignored in standard economic theory, as
we shall see in Chapter 2. The point I want to make here is that
participants in social events cannot base their decisions on knowledge
for the simple reason that such knowledge does not exist at
the time they make their decisions. Of course people are not bereft
of all knowledge; they have the whole body of science (including
social science, for what it is worth) at their disposal as well as the
practical experience accumulated through the ages, but this knowledge
is not enough to reach decisions. Let me cite an obvious
example from the world of finance. If people could act on the basis
of scientifically valid knowledge, then different investors would not
be buying and selling the same stocks at the same time. Participants
cannot predict the outcome of their decisions the way scientists can
predict the movement of celestial bodies. The outcome is liable to
diverge from their expectations, introducing an element of indeterminacy
that is peculiar to social events.
The Theory of Reflexivity
The best way to approach the relationship between the participants'
thinking and the social events in which they participate is to
examine first the relationship between scientists and the phenomena
In the case of scientists, there is only a one-way connection
between statements and facts. The facts about the natural world are
independent of the statements that scientists make about them.
That is a key characteristic that renders the facts suitable to serve
as the criterion by which the truth or validity of statements can be
judged. If a statement corresponds to the facts, it is true; if not, it is
false. Not so in the case of thinking participants. There is a two-way
connection. On the one hand, participants seek to understand
the situation in which they participate. They seek to form a picture
that corresponds to reality. I call this the passive or cognitive
function. On the other hand, they seek to make an impact, to mold reality
to their desires. I call this the active or participating function.
When both functions are at work at the same time, I call the situation
reflexive. I use the word in the same way as the French do
when they describe a verb as reflexive when it has its subject as its
object: Je me lave (I wash myself).
When both functions are at work at the same time, they may
interfere with each other. Through the participating function, people
may influence the situation that is supposed to serve as an independent
variable for the cognitive function. Consequently, the
participants' understanding cannot qualify as objective knowledge.
And because their decisions are not based on objective knowledge,
the outcome is liable to diverge from their expectations.
There are vast areas where our thoughts and reality are independent
of each other and keeping them separate poses no problem. But
there is an area of overlap where the cognitive and participating
functions can interfere with each other and when they do our
understanding is rendered imperfect and the outcome uncertain.
When we think about events in the outside world, the passage of
time can provide some degree of insulation between thought and reality.
Our present thoughts can influence future events, but future
events cannot influence present thinking; only at a future date will
those events be converted into an experience that may change the participants'
thinking. But this insulation is not fool proof, because of
the role of expectations. Our expectations about future events do not
wait for the events themselves; they may change at any time, altering
the outcome. That is what happens in financial markets all the
time. The essence of investment is to anticipate or "discount" the
future. But the price investors are willing to pay for a stock (or currency
or commodity) today may influence the fortunes of the company
(or currency or commodity) concerned in a variety of ways. Thus
changes in current expectations affect the future they discount. This
reflexive relationship in financial markets is so important that I deal
with it later at much greater length. But reflexivity is not confined to
financial markets; it is present in every historical process. Indeed, it
is reflexivity that makes a process truly historical.
Not all social actions qualify as reflexive. We may distinguish
between humdrum, everyday events and historical occasions. In
everyday events, only one of the two reflexive functions is at work;
either the cognitive or the participating function remains idle. For
instance, when you register to vote in a local election, you do not
alter your views about the nature of democracy; when you read in
the newspaper about a rigged election in Nigeria, your changed
perception does not affect what is actually going on in that part of
the world, unless you are an oil executive or a human rights activist
engaged in Nigeria. But there are occasions when the cognitive and
participating functions operate simultaneously so that neither the
participants' views nor the situation to which they relate remain the
same as before. That is what justifies describing such developments
A truly historic event does not just change the world; it changes
our understanding of the world--and that new understanding, in
turn, has a new and unpredictable impact on how the world works.
The French Revolution was such an event. The distinction between
humdrum and historic events is, of course, tautological, but tautologies
can be illuminating. Party congresses in the Soviet Union were
rather humdrum, predictable affairs, but Khrushchev's speech to the
Twentieth Congress was a historic occasion. It changed people's
perceptions and, even if the communist regime did not change
immediately, the speech had unpredictable consequences: The outlook
of the people who were in the forefront of Gorbachev's glasnost
was shaped in their youth by Khrushchev's revelations.
Of course, people think not only about the outside world but
also about themselves and about other people. Here the cognitive
and participation functions may interfere with each other without
any lapse of time. Consider statements like "I love you" or "He is
my enemy." They are bound to affect the person to which they
refer, depending on how they are communicated. Or look at marriage.
It has two thinking participants, but their thinking is not
directed at a reality that is separate and independent of what they
think and feel. One partner's thoughts and feelings affect the
behavior of the other and vice versa. Both feelings and behavior can
change out of all recognition as the marriage evolves.
If the passage of time can insulate the cognitive and participating
functions, reflexivity can be envisaged as a kind of short circuit
between thinking and its subject matter. When it occurs, it affects
the participants' thinking directly, but the outside world only indirectly.
The effect of reflexivity in shaping the participants' self-images,
their values, and their expectations is much more pervasive
and instantaneous than its effect on the course of events. It is only
intermittently, in special cases, that a reflexive interaction significantly
affects not only the participants' views but also the outside
world. These occasions take on special significance because they
demonstrate the importance of reflexivity as a real-world phenomenon.
By contrast, the endemic uncertainty in people's values and
self-images is primarily subjective.
The next step in analyzing the impact of reflexivity on social and
economic phenomena is to point out that the element of indeterminacy
I speak about is not produced by reflexivity on its own;
reflexivity must be accompanied by imperfect understanding on the
part of the participants. If by some fluke people were endowed with
perfect knowledge, the two-way interaction between their thoughts
and the outside world could be ignored. Because the true state of
the world was perfectly reflected in their views, the outcome of
their actions would perfectly correspond to their expectations.
Indeterminacy would be eliminated, as it derives from the feedback
between inaccurate expectations and the unintended consequences
of people's perhaps changing but always biased expectations.
The contention that situations that have thinking participants
contain an element of indeterminacy is amply supported by everyday
observation. Yet it is not a conclusion that has been generally
accepted in economics or social science. Indeed, it has rarely even
been proposed in the direct form in which I have put it here. On
the contrary, the idea of indeterminacy has been vehemently denied
by social scientists who assert their ability to explain events by scientific
method. Marx and Freud are prominent examples, but the
founders of classical economic theory have also gone out of their
way to exclude reflexivity from their field of study, despite its
importance for financial markets. It is easy to see why. Indeterminacy,
the lack of firm predictions and satisfactory explanations, can
be threatening to the professional status of a science.
The concept of reflexivity is so basic that it would be hard to
believe that I was the first to discover it. The fact is, I am not.
Reflexivity is merely a new label for the two-way interaction
between thinking and reality that is deeply ingrained in our common
sense. If we look outside the realm of social science, we find a
widespread awareness of reflexivity. The predictions of the Delphic
oracle were reflexive and so was Greek drama. Even in social science,
there are occasional acknowledgments: Machiavelli introduced
an element of indeterminacy into his analysis and called it
fate; Thomas Merton drew attention to self-fulfilling prophesies
and the bandwagon effect; and a concept akin to reflexivity was
introduced into sociology by Alfred Schutz under the name of
I do not want people to think that I am discussing some mysterious
new phenomenon. Yes, there are some aspects of human
affairs that have not been properly accounted for, but that is not
because reflexivity has only just been discovered; it is because the
social sciences in general and economics in particular have gone out
of their way to cover it up.
Reflexivity in the History of Ideas
Let me try to position the concept of reflexivity in the history of
ideas. The fact that statements may affect the subject matter to
which they refer was first established by Epimenides the Cretan
when he posed the paradox of the liar. Cretans always lie, he said,
and by saying it he brought into question the truth of his statement.
Being a Cretan, if the meaning of what he said was true, then his
statement had to be false; conversely, if his statement was true, then
the meaning it conveyed would have to be false.
The paradox of the liar was treated as an intellectual curiosity
and neglected for the longest time because it interfered with the
otherwise successful pursuit of truth. Truth came to be recognized
as the correspondence of statements to external facts. The so-called
correspondence theory of truth came to be generally accepted at
the beginning of the twentieth century. That was a time when the
study of facts yielded impressive results and the achievements of
science enjoyed widespread admiration.
Emboldened by the success of science, Bertrand Russell tackled the
paradox of the liar head on. His solution was to distinguish between
two classes of statements: a class that included statements that
referred to themselves and a class that excluded such statements. Only
statements belonging to the latter class could be considered well-formed
statements with a determinate truth value. In the case of self-referent
statements, it may not be possible to distinguish whether they
are true or false. Logical positivists carried Bertrand Russell's argument
further and declared that statements whose truth value cannot
be determined are meaningless. Remember, that was the time when
science was providing determinate explanations for an ever-expanding
range of phenomena, while philosophy had become ever more
removed from reality. Logical positivism was a dogma that exalted scientific
knowledge as the sole form of understanding worthy of the
name and outlawed metaphysics. "Those who have understood my
argument," said Ludwig Wittgenstein in the conclusion of his Tractatus
Logico Philosophicus, "must realize that everything I have said in
the book is meaningless." It seemed to be the end of the road for
metaphysical speculations and the total victory of the fact-based,
deterministic knowledge that characterized science.
Soon thereafter Wittgenstein realized that his judgment had
been too severe and he started to study the everyday use of language.
Even natural science became less deterministic. It encountered
boundaries beyond which observations could not be kept
apart from their subject matter. Scientists managed to penetrate the
barrier, first with Einstein's theory of relativity, then with Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle. More recently, investigators using evolutionary
systems theory, also known as chaos theory, started
exploring complex phenomena whose course cannot be determined
by timelessly valid laws. Events follow an irreversible path in which
even slight variances become magnified with the passage of time.
Chaos theory has been able to shed light on many phenomena, such
as the weather, that had previously proved impervious to scientific
treatment, and it has made the idea of an indeterminate universe,
where events follow a unique, irreversible path, more acceptable.
It so happens that I started to apply the concept of reflexivity to
understanding finance, politics, and economics in the early 1960s,
before evolutionary systems theory was born. I arrived at it, with
the help of Karl Popper's writings, through the concept of self-reference.
The two concepts are closely related but they should not be
confused. Self-reference is a property of statements; it belongs
entirely in the realm of thinking. Reflexivity connects thinking with
reality; it belongs to both realms. Perhaps that is why it was ignored
for such a long time.
What reflexivity and self-reference have in common is the element
of indeterminacy. Logical positivism outlawed self-referent statements
as meaningless, but by introducing the concept of reflexivity
I am setting logical positivism on its head. Far from being meaningless,
I claim that statements whose truth value is indeterminate are
even more significant than statements whose truth value is known. The
latter constitute knowledge: They help us understand the world as it
is. But the former, expressions of our inherently imperfect understanding,
help to shape the world in which we live.
At the time I reached this conclusion, I considered it a great
insight. Now that natural science no longer insists on a deterministic
interpretation of all phenomena and logical positivism has
faded into the background, I feel as if I were beating a dead horse.
Indeed, intellectual fashion has turned to the opposite extreme:
The deconstruction of reality into the subjective views and prejudices
of the participants has become all the rage. The very basis on
which differing views can be judged, namely the truth, is being
questioned. I consider this other extreme equally misguided.
Reflexivity should lead to a reassessment, not a total rejection, of
our concept of truth.
A Reflexive Concept of Truth
Logical positivism classified statements as true, false, or meaningless.
After dismissing meaningless statements, it was left with
two categories: true or false. The scheme is eminently suitable to a
universe that is separate and independent of the statements that
refer to it, but it is quite inadequate for understanding the world of
thinking agents. Here we need to recognize an additional category:
reflexive statements whose truth value is contingent on the impact
It was always possible to attack the logical positivist position at the
margin by conjuring up certain statements whose truth value could
be disputed; for instance, "The present King of France is bald." But
such statements are either nonsensical or contrived; either way, we
can live without them. By contrast, reflexive statements are indispensable.
We cannot live without reflexive statements because we cannot
avoid decisions that have a bearing on our fate; and we cannot
reach decisions without relying on ideas and theories that can affect
the subject matter to which they refer. To ignore such statements or
to force them into the categories of "true" and "false" pushes the discourse
in a misleading direction and places our interpretation of
human relations and history in the wrong framework.
All value statements are reflexive in character: "Blessed are the
poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"--if this statement is
believed, then the poor may indeed be blessed, but they will be less
motivated to get themselves out of their misery. By the same token,
if the poor are held to be guilty of their own misery, then they are
less likely to lead blessed lives. Most generalizations about history
and society are similarly reflexive in character; consider, "The proletarians
of the world have nothing to lose but their chains" or
"The common interest is best served by allowing people to pursue
their own interests." It may be appropriate to assert that such statements
have no truth value but it would be misleading (and has historically
been very dangerous) to treat them as meaningless. They
affect the situation to which they refer.
I am not claiming that a third category of truth is indispensable
for dealing with reflexive phenomena. The crucial point is that in
reflexive situations the facts do not necessarily provide an independent
criterion of truth. We have come to treat correspondence as the hallmark
of truth. But correspondence can be brought about in two
ways: either by making true statements or by making an impact on
the facts themselves. Correspondence is not the guarantor of truth.
This caveat applies to most political pronouncements and economic
I hardly need to emphasize the profound significance of this
proposition. Nothing is more fundamental to our thinking than our
concept of truth. We are accustomed to thinking about situations
that have thinking participants in the same way as we do about natural
phenomena. But if there is a third category of truth, we must
thoroughly revise the way we think about the world of human and
I should like to give a minor illustration from the field of international
finance. The IMF has come under increasing pressure to
operate in a more transparent manner and to disclose its internal
deliberations and views on individual countries. These demands
ignore the reflexive nature of these statements. If the IMF disclosed
its concerns about certain countries, they would affect the countries
to which they refer. Recognizing this, IMF officials would be inhibited
from expressing their true opinions and internal debate would
be stifled. If truth is reflexive, the search for the truth sometimes
An Interactive View of Reality
We may be justified in drawing a distinction between statements
and facts, our thoughts and reality, but we must recognize that this
distinction has been introduced by us in an attempt to make sense
of the world in which we live. Our thinking belongs in the same
universe that we are thinking about. This makes the task of making
sense of reality (i.e., reason) much more complicated than it would
be if thinking and reality could be neatly separated into watertight
compartments (as they can be in natural science). Instead of separate
categories, we must treat thinking as part of reality. This gives
rise to innumerable difficulties, of which I should like to discuss
It is impossible to form a picture of the world in which we live
without distortion. In a literal sense, when we form a visual image
of the world we have a blind spot where our optic nerve is attached
to the nerve stem. The image made in our brain replicates the outside
world remarkably well, and we can even fill in the blind spot
by extrapolating from the rest of the picture, though we cannot
actually see what is in the area covered by the blind spot. This may
be taken as a metaphor for the problem we confront. But the fact
that I rely on a metaphor to explain the problem is an even more
The world in which we live is extremely complicated. To form a
view of the world that can serve as a basis for decisions, we must
simplify. Using generalizations, metaphors, analogies, comparisons,
dichotomies, and other mental constructs serves to introduce
some order into an otherwise confusing universe. But every mental
construct distorts to some extent what it represents and every distortion
adds something to the world that we need to understand.
The more we think, the more we have to think about. This is
because reality is not given. It is formed in the same process as the
participants' thinking: The more complex the thinking, the more
complicated reality becomes. Thinking can never quite catch up
with reality: Reality is always richer than our comprehension. Reality
has the power to surprise thinking, and thinking has the power
to create reality.
That said, I have little sympathy with those who seek to deconstruct
reality. Reality is unique and uniquely important. It cannot be
reduced or broken down to the views and beliefs of the participants
because there is a lack of correspondence between what people think and
what actually happens. This lack of correspondence stands in the way
of reducing events to the participants' views just as it thwarts the prediction
of events on the basis of universally valid generalizations.
There is a reality, even if it is unpredictable and unexplainable. This
may be difficult to accept but it is futile or downright dangerous to
deny it, as any participant in the financial markets who has tried it can
testify. Markets rarely gratify people's subjective expectations; yet their
verdict is real enough to cause anguish and loss--and there is no
appeal. Reality exists. But the fact that reality incorporates inherently
imperfect human thinking makes it logically impossible to explain and
As a child, I lived in a house that had an elevator with two mirrors
facing each other. Every day I looked into the mirrors and I
saw myself reproduced. It seemed like infinity, but it was not. This
experience made a lasting impression on me. The view of the world
confronting thinking participants is very much like what I saw in
those elevator mirrors. Thinking participants must impose some
interpretative patterns on what they see. The reflexive process
would never end if they did not end it deliberately. The most effective
way to bring closure is to settle on a pattern and emphasize it
until the actual picture recedes into the background. The pattern
that emerges may be far removed from the underlying sensory perception
but it has the great attraction of being understandable and
clear. That is why religions and dogmatic political ideologies have
so much appeal.
This is not the place to discuss the many ways in which thinking
both distorts reality and alters it. The way I have tried to make
some sense out of a complex and confusing reality is by recognizing
my own fallibility. I have been practicing a critical attitude
based on that insight most of my life--certainly since I read Popper--and
this has been absolutely fundamental to my professional
success in financial markets. It has only recently dawned on me how
unusual this critical attitude is. It has surprised me that other people
were surprised by my way of thinking. If this book has something
original to say, it is on this subject.
Two Versions of Fallibility
I offer two versions of fallibility: first, a more moderate, better
substantiated "official" version that accompanies the concept of
reflexivity and justifies a critical mode of thinking and an open society;
and, second, a more radical, idiosyncratic version that has actually
guided me through life.
The public, moderate version has already been discussed. Fallibility
means that there is a lack of correspondence between the participants'
thinking and the actual state of affairs; as a result actions
have unintended consequences. Events do not necessarily diverge
from expectations, but they are liable to do so. There are many
humdrum, everyday events that play out exactly as expected, but
those events that show a divergence are more interesting. They
may alter people's view of the world and set in motion a reflexive
process as a result of which neither the participants' views nor the
actual state of affairs remains unaffected.
Fallibility has a negative sound, but it has a positive aspect that can
be very inspiring. What is imperfect can be improved. The fact that
our understanding is inherently imperfect makes it possible to learn
and to improve our understanding. All that is needed is to recognize
our fallibility. That opens the way to critical thinking and there is no
limit to how far our understanding of reality may go. There is infinite
scope for improvement not only in our thinking but also in our
society. Perfection eludes us; whatever design we choose, it is bound
to be defective. We must therefore content ourselves with the next
best thing--a form of social organization that falls short of perfection
but is open to improvement. That is the concept of the open society:
a society open to improvement. The concept rests on the
recognition of our fallibility. I explore it further later on, but first I
want to introduce a more radical, idiosyncratic version of fallibility.
At this point, I shall change my tack. Instead of discussing fallibility
in general terms, I shall try to explain what it means to me
personally. It is the cornerstone not only of my view of the world
but also of my behavior. It is the foundation of my theory of history
and it has guided me in my actions both as a participant in the
financial markets and as a philanthropist. If there is anything original
in my thinking, it is my radical version of fallibility.
I take a more stringent view of fallibility than the one I could justify
by the arguments I have presented so far. I contend that all constructs
of the human mind, whether they are confined to the inner
recesses of our thinking or find expression in the outside world in the
form of disciplines, ideologies, or institutions, are deficient in some
way or another. The flaw may manifest itself in the form of internal
inconsistencies or inconsistencies with the external world or inconsistencies
with the purpose that our ideas were designed to serve.
This proposition is, of course, much stronger than the recognition
that all our constructs may be wrong. I am not speaking of a
mere lack of correspondence but of an actual flaw in all human constructs
and an actual divergence between outcomes and expectations.
As I explained earlier, the divergence really matters only in
historic events. That is why the radical version of fallibility can
serve as the basis for a theory of history.
The contention that all human constructs are flawed sounds very
bleak and pessimistic, but it is no cause for despair. Fallibility
sounds so negative only because we cherish false hopes. We yearn
for perfection, permanence, and the ultimate truth, with immortality
thrown in for good measure. Judged by those standards, the
human condition is bound to be unsatisfactory. In fact, perfection
and immortality elude us and permanence can only be found in
death. But life gives us a chance to improve our understanding
exactly because it is imperfect and also to improve the world. When
all constructs are deficient, the variations become all important.
Some constructs are better than others. Perfection is unattainable
but what is inherently imperfect is capable of infinite improvement.
For good order's sake, I note that my claim that all human and
social constructs are deficient does not qualify as a scientific hypothesis
because it cannot be properly tested. I can claim that the participants'
views always diverge from reality but I cannot prove it
because we cannot know what reality would be in the absence of our
views. I can wait for events to show a divergence from expectations,
but, as I have indicated, subsequent events do not serve as an independent
criterion for deciding what the correct expectations would
have been because different expectations could have led to a different
course of events. Similarly, I can claim that all human constructs
are flawed but I cannot demonstrate what the flaw is. The flaws usually
manifest themselves at some future date, but that is no evidence
that they were present at the time the constructs were formed. The
shortcomings of dominant ideas and institutional arrangements
become apparent only with the passage of time, and the concept of
reflexivity justifies only the claim that all human constructs are
potentially flawed. That is why I present my proposition as a working
hypothesis, without logical proof or scientific status.
I call it a working hypothesis because it has worked well both in
my financial activities and in my involvement in philanthropy and
international affairs. It has encouraged me to look for the flaws in
every situation and, when I found them, to benefit from the insight.
On the subjective level, I recognized that my interpretation was
bound to be distorted. This did not discourage me from having a view;
on the contrary, I sought out situations where my interpretation was
at variance with the prevailing wisdom. But I was always on the
lookout for my error; when I discovered it, I grasped it with alacrity.
In my financial dealings, the discovery of error would often present
an opportunity to take whatever profits I had made from my flawed
initial insight--or to cut my losses if the insight had not yielded even
a temporarily profitable result. Most people are reluctant to admit that
they are wrong; it gave me positive pleasure to discover a mistake
because I knew it could save me from financial grief.
On the objective level, I recognized that the companies or industries
in which I invested were bound to be flawed and I preferred to
know what the flaws were. This did not stop me from investing; on
the contrary, I felt much safer when I knew the potential danger
points because that told me what signs to look for to sell my
investment. No investment can offer superior returns indefinitely.
Even if a company has superior market position, outstanding management,
and exceptional profit margins, the stock may become
overvalued, management may become complacent, and the competitive
or regulatory environment may change. It is wise to be
constantly looking for the fly in the ointment. When you know
what it is, you are ahead of the game.
I developed my own variant of Popper's model of scientific
method for use in financial markets. I would formulate a hypothesis
on the basis of which I would invest. The hypothesis had to differ from
the accepted wisdom and the bigger the difference the greater the profit
potential. If there was no difference, there was no point in taking a
position. This corresponded to Popper's contention--much criticized
by philosophers of science--that the more severe the test, the more
valuable the hypothesis that survives it. In science, the value of a hypothesis
is intangible; in financial markets it can be readily measured
by the profit it yields. In contrast to science, a financial hypothesis
does not have to be true to be profitable; it is enough that it should
come to be generally accepted. But a false hypothesis cannot prevail
forever. That is why I liked to invest in flawed hypotheses that had a
chance of becoming generally accepted, provided I knew what the flaw
was: It allowed me to sell in time. I called my flawed hypotheses fertile
fallacies and I built my theory of history, as well as my success in
financial markets, around them.
My working hypothesis--that all human constructs are always
flawed--is not only unscientific but it has a more radical defect: It
is probably not true. Every construct develops a defect with the passage
of time, but this does not mean that it was inappropriate or
ineffective at the time it was constructed. I think it is possible to
refine my working hypothesis and cast it in a form that can lay a
stronger claim to be true. For this purpose, I must appeal to my
theory of reflexivity. In a reflexive process, neither the participants'
thinking nor the actual state of affairs remains unaffected. Therefore
even if a decision or interpretation was correct at the beginning
of the process, it is bound to be inappropriate at a later stage.
So I must add an important proviso to the claim that all human
constructs are flawed: It is true only if we expect theories or policies
to be timelessly valid like the laws of science.
Constructs, like actions, have unintended consequences and
those consequences cannot be properly anticipated at the time of
their creation. Even if the consequences could be anticipated, it
might still be appropriate to proceed because those consequences
would arise only in the future. So my working hypothesis is not
incompatible with the idea that one course of action is better than
another, that there is indeed an optimum course of action. It does
imply, however, that the optimum applies only to a particular
moment of history and what is optimum at one point may cease to
be so at the next. This is a difficult concept to work with, particularly
for institutions that cannot avoid some degree of inertia. The
longer any form of taxation is in effect, the more likely it is that it
will be evaded; that may be a good reason for changing the form of
taxation after a while, but not a good reason for having no taxation.
To take an example from a different field, the Catholic Church has
evolved into something quite different from what Jesus intended,
but that is not sufficient ground for dismissing his teachings.
In other words, theories or policies may be temporarily valid at
a certain point in history. It is to bring this point home that I call
them fertile fallacies: flawed constructs with initially beneficial
effects. How long the beneficial effects last depends on whether the
flaws are recognized and corrected. In this way, constructs may
become increasingly sophisticated. But no fertile fallacy is likely to
last forever; eventually the scope for refining it and developing it
will be exhausted and a new fertile fallacy captures people's imagination.
What I am about to say may be a fertile fallacy, but I am
inclined to interpret the history of ideas as composed of fertile fallacies.
Other people may call them paradigms.
The combination of these two ideas--that all mental constructs
are flawed but some of them are fertile--lies at the core of my own,
radical version of fallibility. I apply it to the outside world and to
my own activities with equal vigor and it has served me well both
as a fund manager and more recently as a philanthropist. Whether
it will also serve me well as a thinker is being tested right now, for
this radical version of fallibility serves as the foundation for the theory
of history and the interpretation of financial markets that I lay
out in the rest of this book.
A Personal Postscript
My radical version of fallibility is not only an abstract theory but
also a personal statement. As a fund manager, I depended a great
deal on my emotions. That was because I was aware of the inadequacy
of knowledge. The predominant feelings I operated with
were doubt, uncertainty, and fear. I had moments of hope or even
euphoria, but they made me feel insecure. By contrast, worrying
made me feel safe. So the only genuine joy I experienced was when
I discovered what I had to worry about. By and large, I found managing
a hedge fund extremely painful. I could never acknowledge
my success, because that might stop me from worrying, but I had
no trouble recognizing my mistakes.
Only when others pointed it out to me did I realize that there
may be something unusual in my attitude to mistakes. It made so
much sense to me that discovering an error in my thinking or in my
position should be a source of joy rather than regret that I thought
that it ought to make sense to others as well. But that is not the
case. When I looked around, I found that most people go to great
lengths to deny or cover up their mistakes. Indeed, their misconceptions
and misdeeds become an integral part of their personality.
I will never forget an experience I had when I visited Argentina in
1982 to look at the mountain of debt that country had accumulated.
I sought out a number of politicians who had served in previous
governments and asked them how they would handle the situation.
To a man, they said they would apply the same policies they followed
when they were in government. Rarely had I met so many
people who learned so little from experience.
I carried my critical attitude into my philanthropic activities. I
found philanthropy riddled with paradoxes and unintended consequences.
For instance, charity may turn the recipients into objects
of charity. Giving is supposed to help others, but in reality it often
serves for the ego gratification of the giver. What is worse, people
frequently engage in philanthropy because they want to feel good,
not because they want to do good.
Holding these views, I had to take a different approach. I found
myself behaving not very differently from the way I behave in business.
For instance, I subordinated the interests of the foundation
personnel and of the individual applicants to the mission of the
foundation. I used to joke that ours is the only misanthropic foundation
in the world. I remember explaining at a staff meeting in
Karlovi Vari, Czechoslovakia, around 1991, my views about foundations,
and I am sure that those who were there will never forget
it. I said that foundations are hothouses of corruption and inefficiency
and I would consider it a greater accomplishment to wind up
a foundation that failed than to set up a new one. I also remember
telling a gathering in Prague of staff members from European
foundations that networking means not working.
I must confess that I have mellowed with the passage of time.
There is a difference between running a hedge fund and a foundation.
The external pressures are largely absent and it is only internal
discipline that keeps a critical attitude alive. Moreover, heading
a large foundation requires people skills and leadership qualifies
and people do not like critical remarks--they want praise and
encouragement. Not many people share my predilection for identifying
error and even fewer share my joy in it. To be an effective
leader, one has to gratify people. I am learning the hard way what
seems to come naturally to politicians and heads of corporations.
There is another influence as well. I have to make some public
appearances, and when I do I am expected to exude self-confidence.
In reality I am consumed by self-doubt and I cherish the feeling. I
would hate to lose it. There is a wide gap between my public persona
and what I consider my real self, but I am aware of a reflexive connection
between the two. I have been watching with amazement
how the development of a public persona has affected me. I have
become a "charismatic" personality. Fortunately I do not quite
believe in myself as others do. I try to remember my limitations even
if I do not feel them as acutely as I used to. But other charismatic personalities
have not arrived at their leadership position following the
same route as I did. They do not have the same memories. They probably
remember that they always tried to get others to believe in
them and eventually they succeeded. They are not consumed by
self-doubt and they do not need to repress the urge to express it. No
wonder that their attitude to fallibility is different.
It is fascinating to consider how my current "charismatic" personality
relates to the financial markets and to my previous self as a
fund manager. It qualifies me to make deals or even to manipulate
markets but disqualifies me from managing money. My utterances
can move markets, although I make great efforts not to abuse that
power. At the same time, I have lost the ability to operate within the
confines of the market as I used to. I have dismantled the mechanism
of pain and anxiety that used to guide me. This is a long story,
which I recounted elsewhere. The change happened long before I
acquired my "charisma." When I was an active fund manager, I
used to shun publicity. I considered it the kiss of death to be on the
cover of a financial magazine. This amounted to a superstition, but
it was well supported by the evidence. It is easy to see why. The
publicity would engender a feeling of euphoria and, even if I fought
it, it would throw me off my stride. And if I expressed a market view
in public, I found it more difficult to change my mind.
It can be seen that operating in the financial markets requires a
different mind-set from that required for operating in a social,
political, or organizational setting or, indeed, for acting like a normal
human being. This is also borne out by the evidence. There is
considerable tension in most financial institutions between profit
producers and the managers of the organization, or at least there
used to be when I was familiar with these institutions, and the most
gifted producers often preferred to go out on their own. That was
the genesis of the hedge fund industry.
The radical version of fallibility I have adopted as a working
hypothesis certainly proved effective in the financial markets. It has
outperformed the random walk hypothesis by a convincing margin.
Does it also apply to other aspects of human existence? That
depends on what our goal is. If we want to understand reality, I
believe it is helpful; but if our aim is to manipulate reality, it does
not work so well--charisma works better.
Coming back to my personal feelings, I have learned to adjust to
the new reality in which I am operating. I used to find public
expressions of praise and gratitude positively painful, but I have
come to realize that this is a reflex left over from the days when I
was actively managing money and I had to be guided by the results
of my actions, not by what other people thought of them. I am still
embarrassed by gratitude and I still believe that philanthropy, if it
is deserving of praise, should put the interests of society ahead of
ego gratification, but I am willing to accept praise because my philanthropy
has in fact met this condition. Whether it can continue to
do so in the light of my changed attitude toward praise is a question
that troubles me, but as long as I am troubled the answer will
probably remain in the affirmative.