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History and Politics

Professor Peter Hägel on Billionaires in World Politics

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Oxford University Press, 2020

Peter Hägel is an assistant professor at AUP and the program coordinator for the philosophy, politics and economics major. We caught up to discuss his recent book publication, Billionaires in World Politics (Oxford University Press, 2020).

How did your research topic come about?

I’m coming from international relations, looking at questions of globalization and global political economy. I was also interested in rising inequality – that’s when I came across billionaires. You read about them in the Forbes lists that come out every February. If you look at global political economy in terms of IR theory, it’s mostly concerned with collective actors, such as states, corporations or NGOs. Collective actors are powerful because they organize and pool resources. Billionaires, however, are individuals. They often control similar resources to those of collective actors; some control budgets that rival smaller states! So, my question was: what role can these individuals play in world politics?

But you’re not looking at billionaire politicians, like Trump. Why is that?

There are a number of examples of billionaires becoming prime ministers and presidents, but I decided not to study them because they entered politics on national grounds. Of course, as national leaders they are also in world politics, but as representatives of the state – with all the resources the state brings. Think budgets, legislation, the administration – even Air Force One! It’s not a private jet. That power is first and foremost the power of the state. What interested me was individual power that arises from financial resources, and how financial resources are transformed into political resources.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when structuring the book?

The first part, chapters two through four, is theoretical and addresses an academic audience. It discusses the question of how international relations looks at actors in world politics and asks why individuals have been neglected. It also charts the rise of billionaires throughout the 20th century. For the second part of the book, I decided to pursue case studies, which are accessible to a broader audience. I looked at six billionaires who have tried to influence world politics in the domains of security, the economy and social entrepreneurship. Lastly, there’s an analytical conclusion that looks at questions arising from the study:  Should we think about billionaires as a transnational class or as idiosyncratic individuals? How much power do billionaires have in comparison to collective actors, and what does all this mean for democracy?

Can you give me an example of a billionaire you studied?

One actually passed away recently. Sheldon Adelson was a self-made US billionaire – a true rags-to-riches biography. His one objective beyond wealth was the security of Israel. He had, I would say, a huge impact on a number of fronts: on the one hand he tried to sway US foreign policy towards Israel and on the other he was a great supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, mainly through financing a free newspaper. After it launched, it became the most-read newspaper in Israel within three years. The opposition tried and failed to ban its publication three times. It was financed entirely by Adelson as a private business. Not everybody can do that. Nowadays we often look at billionaires as being powerful through their philanthropy, but, in the case of Adelson, it was “business philanthropy.” Throughout its existence, the paper was never profitable, but it was nonetheless run as a for-profit corporation.

In your view, do billionaires have the legitimacy to influence politics?

It’s tricky. When someone intervenes in one country coming from another, there’s clearly no democratic legitimacy. It undermines democracy as we have become used to thinking about it: in national terms. But most of these interventions are fully legal. Adelson published a newspaper: that’s freedom of expression. George Soros created a foundation. It’s accepted that foreigners open businesses and organizations, as they are given the same rights of free speech and legal equality. But these norms come under pressure due to inequality. Freedom of expression is not the same for someone who spends $200 million on a newspaper to amplify their voice. Almost every other citizen can’t do that. You have to ask whether regulation is needed in this case. But the question of whether we should all be treated equally in the face of massive economic inequalities is quite new in political philosophy. It’s not straightforward.

What about when billionaires attempt to influence global issues?

Firstly, it’s important to note that the international arena is not democratic: it’s dominated by the great powers, like the US and China. As for billionaires: Bill Gates, for example, has tried to leave his mark on global health policy. He has tried to gain legitimacy through authority – by acquiring expertise and resources in global health. Sometimes we accept that experts can shape the rules: central bankers, for example, or scientific panels on climate change. I think for Bill Gates to gain more legitimacy there would need to be both more transparency in his foundation and greater representation on its board. The Gates Foundation has three trustees: Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. The problem is, if you implemented regulations on foundations, you risk them going corporate, like Mark Zuckerberg has done. His philanthropy is a limited-liability corporation, not a philanthropic foundation.

What are the implications of your research moving forward?

If individuals control resources that can be translated into political power, then we need to take individuals seriously as actors in world politics. That doesn’t stop at billionaires: there are examples of celebrities who use their fame to raise support for certain issues. There are also individuals who have moral authority because they are admired for their exemplary ethics or actions. I’m not saying individuals are more important than collective actors – states are still the main actors in international relations – but there are policy areas in which individuals can make a big difference. It’s not about separating the individual from his or her society, but about asking what kind of society makes such individual agency possible. It’s not surprising that all my case-study billionaires are based in the US. If you want to become a billionaire, the US is a great place – it’s a society in which the individual is lionized and where money can buy almost anything. The kind of individual agency I’m studying depends on a social context that celebrates individual entrepreneurship.

Professor Hägel and a panel of colleagues will participate in an online book launch event for Billionaires in World Politics on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. For more information and to register your attendance, visit the event listing on AUP's website.