“The power of billionaires like Elon Musk is dangerous”

Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos… Do billionaires 2.0 interfere dangerously with sovereign missions? Yes, says Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, who also points to a fragile and dubious moralism.

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Between his highly questionable peace plan for Ukraine, the role played by its Starlink satellite networkhis diplomatic advice in Taiwanhis projects space conquest and, recently, the takeover of Twitterall lands seem within reach of Elon Musk’s wealth. The founder of Tesla and SpaceX is not the only one to encroach on missions in principle reserved for States. The same goes for Mark Zuckerberg and Libra, the virtual currency project (admittedly abandoned) by the boss of Meta. Or the $592 million the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already donated to the World Health Organization, testifying to the growing privatization of humanitarian aid. Their common point? All have largely built their empire and their fortune by resorting to tax optimizationto the detriment of States from which they thereby strip some of the revenue and capacity for action.

Do you share the observation that a series of great fortunes encroach more than ever on functions hitherto reserved for States?

Absolutely. There have always been great fortunes. The novelty is that they are today very fast and even higher than before. Their owners provide services used by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people, as if they were dealing with the citizens of a country. Facebook has finally more people than China. These great fortunes intervene much more than the robber barons of the last century on sovereign subjects, as I underlined in my book (Editor’s note: Geopolitics of artificial intelligence. How the digital revolution will disrupt society, ed. Eyrolles, 2021).

The existing barriers are fragile because, as soon as these billionaires are confronted with them, they seek to circumvent them.

What outstanding examples would you point to?

Through its foundation, Bill Gates intervened financially when Donald Trump announced that he was refusing to pay the American share to the World Health Organization. At the same time, Elon Musk worked with NASA to send rockets and allow it to regain a foothold in manned spaceflight. Previously, it was pure regal: we did not see an individual doing that. On his side, Mark Zuckerberg wanted to launch a currency, which by definition competes with those of the States. More recently, we can also note the Ukraine peace proposal that Elon Musk made on Twitter. Admittedly, we can say that when Bill Gates does the end of the month for the WHO, it’s rather nice and useful. On the other hand, an Elon Musk intervenes in much broader areas.

Pascal Boniface, director of Iris.
Pascal Boniface, director of Iris. © DR

How potentially dangerous are their interferences?

All state leaders must to be accountable to their people. These billionaires, them, don’t have to give it to anyone. They are freewheeling and hold power that comes with no accountability to the health or education of millions of people. They are at most accountable for what they owe to their employees, and again. They can spoil their fortune if they want, where states cannot engage in lavish spending as they do. The game is therefore distorted from the start: they hold a dangerous power, since it bears no relation to their responsibilities.

We can also wonder about what allowed them to amass this fortune…

Tax evasion is very often at the origin of their fortune, which adds to the confusion. They take advantage of the impoverishment – to which they have largely contributed – of a state to attack even more the sovereign functions. Even though Bill Gates fights world hunger through his foundation, he does it by private decision and can change direction at any time. In this respect, do we trust public power or charity? Somewhere, we give priority to charity over taxes and solidarity. While knowing that a large part of what is distributed for humanitarian purposes comes in part from tax evasion. This moralism therefore raises questions and remains fragile.since it is a matter of private decisions.

Some of these billionaires are invested in the platform economy, which is characterized by adding new services to a large number of users. Does this help them to venture into other fields, including sovereign ones?

Absolutely, because they appear as solution providers, such as facilitators of everyday life, in a seemingly gratuitous way. This allows them to build a positive image from the startas opposed to state interventionism in certain areas.

Do the existing guidelines, whether they come from a legal framework or from justice, seem sufficient to you to moderate the inclinations of these actors?

The existing beacons are fragile because opposite, these billionaires are not inactive. As soon as they are confronted with a barrier, they are looking aroundr. It’s in their DNA, and it’s the reason they were able to build these empires. You have to be aware that they will not stop. There is however a state resistance movement, who do not want to be overwhelmed. We have seen this in particular in the United States, through legal actions against Facebook or Microsoft, and threats of dismantling. The European Union is also making efforts to set limits. But the awakening of States is even more flagrant in China, where Jack Ma (Editor’s note: the founder of the Alibaba e-commerce platform) had been forced to shut up and not list one of its subsidiaries on the stock exchange. The Chinese Communist Party wanted to show its ability to command these great fortunes.

Should democracies, for their part, set stricter guidelines with regard to the excesses of certain billionaires?

Exactly. They shouldn’t be victims of their own rules and that out of naivety, they get overwhelmed by people whose even the most altruistic projects are charitable, not public authorities. Especially since besides that, there are also less pleasant projectslike when Elon Musk says he wants to isolate himself on a desert island or on the planet Mars so as not to have to depend on taxation and solidarity with others.

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