The Davos man is no friend of the free market

As some of us endure the senseless masochism of “dry January”, the valleys of eastern Switzerland will soon bask in a cacophony of helicopters, stuffed with Übermensch coming down from the mountains of Surrey and northern California wineries, ready to set the world to right and enlighten the dim-witted masses.

Davos, or the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, is an annual gathering at a ski resort to “define priorities and shape global, industry and regional agendas”. Formally, it is a series of talks, panel discussions and tête-à-têtes between business, civil society, and government. Less formally, however, it serves as an opportunity to circumvent parliamentary democracies around the world and organise people’s lives without recourse to their interests.

But one should be careful when directing criticism. The Corbyn line against Davos is vociferous, but misplaced. The common retort from his ilk is that this concentration of wealth is disgusting and must be bought down. For Corbyn, the fact that bankers, fund managers, and corporate titans can be gathered in such a way is bad in and of itself. But he is missing the wood for the trees. 

Consider what actually happens at Davos. Delegates can be treated to an array of self-indulgent and hyper-woke tosh. Last year, for instance, there were panel discussions from George Osborne and the editor of the Economist, and “An Insight, An Idea with Cate Blanchett” – what a joy.

What is especially galling is that there is a presumption of superior knowledge, unknown unknowns that only attendees are capable of understanding. But these are the very same people who consistently get the big calls wrong.

In the 1970s, they favoured the government setting prices and incomes. In the 1980s, they argued for the European exchange rate mechanism. In the 1990s, they insisted that it would be catastrophic if we didn’t join the euro. They also told us that there would be no more boom and bust. In the 2000s, they supported bailing out the banks. And in 2016, they warned that the sky would fall in if the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, that 820,000 jobs would be lost, that the UK would fall into an immediate recession, and that there would be a need for an emergency punishment budget. Over the course of many decades, these “Davos men” have, at least, taught us one thing: their judgement is way off the mark.

Put plainly, Davos is an oligarchy that’s devoid of accountability and intent on trampling on the interests of constituents and consumers. When painfully right-on columnists ponder the causes of the “nationalist surge” while sitting in their Islington breakfast rooms or Left Bank cafes, they would do well to pause and consider the real causes of their concerns.

Far from being a neoliberal’s dream, the Davos man is no friend of the free market. Rather, he rigs markets in favour of a small coterie of producers and to the disadvantage of all consumers.

He is, in reality, on the same side as leftists. He’s either state funded and living off taxpayers’ money, or – if he’s in the private sector – he’s a monopolist, dedicated to locking out competition and choice. And, crucially, they parrot the myth that the problems of the world require more grand plans on the part of lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats, rather than further economic freedom. Worryingly, policy in countries across the West is increasingly made for, by, and on behalf of these people.

The corporatists gathering in Davos this month need to get out of the way and permit human flourishing to happen, not obsess over their cynical planning of how they would like the world to look. And governments across the West must recognise that simply divining that “something must be done” is not a strategy to help people.

Those truly interested in increasing wealth and opportunity among the poorest would focus on liberating markets – a tried and tested method that stands in stark contrast to the bad judgement of the Davos man.

Written by Duncan Simpson

Duncan Simpson is a policy analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.