Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
If Davos has passed you by this year, you’re not alone. The annual elite love-in is reportedly to be attended by only one G7 leader – the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – with numbers significantly down on the last in-person World Economic Forum. In 2019, a quarter of the UK cabinet flew out; this year, COP26 president Alok Sharma is joined by only one other, Investment Minister Gerry Grimstone.
This may be a sign of inflation biting (tickets don’t come cheap), or perhaps pandemic restrictions are still hampering travel plans. Nonetheless, the apparent drop in interest is a welcome sign. Indeed, it’s about time the event collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions.
Like most gatherings of its kind, it’s more an exhibition of hypocrisy and virtue-signalling than a means of affecting change for the benefit of ordinary people. The double standards on display are enough to make even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle cringe. Once again, billionaire business leaders and politicians are spotted jetting into Davos in their droves, before heading into the forum to opine on climate change, equality, and social justice. At least the attention-loving former royals had the sense to give it a miss year – this time, in favour of the Californian polo season
So far, we’ve heard the president of the Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group, tell us all about their new development for ‘individual carbon footprint trackers’ to help us all monitor our daily damage to the environment. A quick Google search finds that Alibaba’s total GHG emissions in 2020 were 9.514 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. We’ve heard from the Australian eSafety commissioner about how we need a “recalibration” of freedom of speech – sounds suspiciously like censorship to me – that will favour incumbents over tech start-ups. And we’ve heard from Winnie Byanyima, former head of Oxfam International, about how the “impact of Covid-19 was racist and sexist”. Constructive.
One particular event from this year’s schedule sums up the occasion pretty well: a panel for the World Cup in Qatar. Plenty of platitudes but no mention of Qatar’s questionable human rights record, treatment of sexual minorities, or the deaths of thousands of foreign workers. Elsewhere, the Emir of the State of Qatar used a keynote speech to blame criticism over the country’s hosting of the World Cup on anti-Muslim discrimination.
Now, this would be fine (if a little irritating) if it weren’t for the fact that this is the perfect environment for crony capitalism to flourish, and for global political agendas to be imposed on sovereign nations. Davos is not an event that gives people the chance to ‘speak truth to power’ as it has previously been advertised – unless, of course, you have tens of thousands of dollars spare. It’s a gathering that perpetuates a top-down elitist mentality and the myth that economic welfare is promoted by ‘experts’.
As we know, the global economy is shaped by the dispersed decisions of billions of consumers and tens of millions of businesses. It is not – or should not – be shaped by politicians in cahoots with big corporates. This is what leads to ever more regulation, interventions and barriers to entry that undermine competition, by making it harder for small businesses to operate in their markets. That is not a free market.
Another panel that caught my attention was about ‘Tackling Youth Mistrust’. This involves a very earnest discussion on how those currently in positions of power can win back the trust of young people. It is the yoof who are apparently most concerned by the perceived failings of government and business on ‘climate change, social justice, inequality and conflict’.
This all sounds rather vacuous for starters. But there’s an irony that such an elitist event is pontificating over such a matter, when it is young people who are turning away from capitalism in their droves, a system they perceive as being inherently elitist.
One good news story from Davos at least is the delay in the proposed global minimum corporation tax regime – which the Secretary General of the OECD has said will now be pushed back until 2024. It may even have been kicked into the long. The plans, of course, would not only be a bureaucratic nightmare but would undermine healthy tax competition between countries, and national sovereignty.
But all this shows just how removed these types of events are from the lives of ordinary people. Fundamentally, businesses – big and small – are there to make a profit. To do so, they provide jobs and useful products. It should not, then, be the job of bosses to impose their world views and ill-defined societal goals on the rest of us. It would be refreshing if businesses would remember what their purpose is.
If they have to preach about something, they might do well to espouse the benefits of free market enterprise. After all, it has only liberated a few billions from poverty. But I imagine that isn’t the sort of billions most Davos devotees are interested in.