This spring marks the 60th anniversary of the Bilderberg Group summit, a gathering of major power brokers so apparently selective it makes the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos gathering in Switzerland look like a blue light stampede at K-Mart.
Charlie Skelton, who has been covering the three-day summit for England’s left-wing Guardian newspaper, describes this year’s anniversary event as “a red-letter occasion” where the summit’s chancellor has spent his time “deep in conference with the heads of MI6, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, HSBC, Shell, BP and Goldman Sachs International, along with dozens of other chief executives, billionaires and high-ranking politicians from around Europe.”
Skelton is uncomfortable with all that wealth, power and secrecy in one place, and he’s right to be so – but not for all the right reasons. There’s nothing untoward about fabulously wealthy business leaders gathering to make deals, swap ideas and explore future partnerships. Silicon Valley is a global technology leader because it gathers so many smart, creative people in one place to tackle closely related entrepreneurial challenges. What’s worrying about Bilderberg isn’t all the entrepreneurs in one place. It’s all the political power players and government officials in the mix.
Think about it. Why do even some entrepreneurs who do not want government intimately involved in the economy feel compelled to hob nob with all of those European and American politicians at this year’s Bilderberg summit? Maybe what happened to Bill Gates has something to do with it. By most accounts, Gates went about building up Microsoft, happy in the knowledge that his Redmond, Washington operation was far away from the Washington on the other coast. But then Washington D.C. found him and began to make life difficult for him.
The man who once “made sure everyone knew he was not interested in playing the political game,” as Politico’s Stephanie Simon and Erin Mershon put it, “soon realized that approach wasn’t working — and turned himself into a player.”
His transformation tells us a lot about events like the Bilderberg summit, and Skelton partially understands the dynamics of the event. “The Bilderberg Group says the conference has no desired outcome,” Skelton continues in the Guardian article. “But for private equity giants, and the heads of banks, arms manufacturers and oil companies, there's always a desired outcome. Try telling the shareholders of Shell that there's ‘no desired outcome’ of their chairman and chief executive spending three days in conference with politicians and policy makers.”
Skelton then quotes MP Michael Meacher, who “describes Bilderberg as ‘the cabal of the rich and powerful’ who are working ‘to consolidate and extend the grip of the markets … beyond the reach of the media or the public.’”
But Skelton misses something basic. Whatever crony capitalism there is at Bilderberg thrives to the degree it does because the governments of the Western powers have grown so large. They have penetrated into virtually every facet of our overlapping economies.
To give just one example from the EU: At one point the British jam maker Clippy’s was threatened for not having enough added sugar in their jam to qualify as jam. They were told to change the name “Clippy's British Bramley Apple Jam” to something like “Clippy's British Bramley Apple Conserve” or even “Clippy's British Bramley Apple Fruit Spread.”
When I hear “British Bramley’s Apple Jam,” my mouth waters. When I hear “British Bramley Apple Fruit Spread,” I want to run screaming into a copy of Shakespearian sonnets for aesthetic succor. The first jam name is vivid, lively, and euphonic. The second has about it a whiff of the generic and bureaucratic.
From here the jam plot thickens. Having swatted Clippy’s on the nose for failing to lard enough sugar into their jam, the EU later determined that Europeans were getting a little too hefty, and it began contemplating radically reducing the amount of sugar jam makers would be allowed to put in their jams. The Plymouth Herald explains the disaster in the making:
Now any of you who make jam know that in order for the jam to set the amount of sugar must be in proportion to the amount of fruit used, try to make a jam under these conditions and you end up with a tasteless, colourless gloop, so this means the death of our world renowned jam and marmalade industries, which earn millions in exports yearly, as well as depriving us of a product developed over hundreds of years.
Given the threat, who do you think all the big players in the European jam industry will want to get on very good terms with as quickly as possible? That’s an easy one: The government officials who gather at summits like Davos and Bilderberg.
Many among the conscientious left have a natural aversion to government-corporate cronyism, but out of a desire for the government to protect and lift up the disenfranchised and politically less connected, they support enlarged government on a host of fronts. This in turn has the unintended consequence of feeding the Kraken of cronyism until it’s large enough and powerful enough to wrap its tentacles around even the most independent of entrepreneurial endeavors.
To those on the left who have put their trust in the leviathan state to protect the cause of the poor and disenfranchised, but who now see the limits of that strategy: you need not wholly abandon your faith in government. Governments still have an indispensable role in extending ordinary justice—the rule of law—to the poor and disenfranchised.
Instead of dissipating its energies squeezing the jam industry and every other sector of the economy until business leaders feel compelled to play the hob-nob lobby game just to survive, what if Western governments were disciplined by their citizens to focus their primary energies on protecting their citizens from violence, theft and fraud? This would include providing swift and fair trials that discourage crime, including white collar crimes such as embezzlement, fraud, insider trading and toxic dumping
With a narrower focus, maybe our roads and bridges wouldn’t be crumbling in many parts of the country. Maybe those seeking to immigrate legally to the United States wouldn’t be worn out by endless waiting. And maybe the millions thrown out of work by the sluggish economy would have fresh opportunities for gainful employment, since job-creating entrepreneurs wouldn’t be weighed down by heavy taxes and endless government paperwork for every move they make.
Unfortunately, as things stand, government bureaucracies are penetrating ever more deeply into the economy, creating regulatory regimes so complex that neither entrepreneurs nor politicians can fully understand them, much less consistently follow or enforce them. It’s a strategy that demands selective enforcement, and with this comes an endless string of temptations and opportunities for the well-connected to curry favorable action or inaction from those in government, and for those in government to make themselves available to enjoy the fruits of such lobbying.
The conscientious left complains about all the big lobbyists at places like the Bilderberg summit. But an unlimited government is a lobbyist magnet. And the bigger the magnet, the bigger the pull. If you want to end the culture of cronyism, shrink the magnet.
Jonathan Witt, Ph.D., is a research fellow with the Acton Institute and the author, with Jay Richards, of the upcoming Ignatius Press book The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot