“They can’t do what they want”

Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos… Do billionaires 2.0 interfere dangerously with sovereign missions? Between regulations, their reputation and their economic interests, the most influential billionaires do not have free rein, underlines Paul Belleflamme, professor at the Louvain School of Management.

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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.

Paul Belleflamme, professor at the Louvain School of Management. © DR

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg… Today’s best-known billionaires are, for the most part, players involved in the platform economy operating in areas other than their initial business. Can their power of influence constitute a threat?

If we take Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, but also Brin and Page, the co-founders of Google, their wealth actually comes from platform companies. The markets in which they operate are characterized by what is known as the “winner takes all” (Editor’s note: the winner takes all): as soon as they reach a certain size, they have tendency to become larger, at the expense of competitors. For Musk, it’s a bit different, as his wealth didn’t initially come from platforms, but he’s getting involved with them today via Twitter. For others, it’s a wealth acquired by the force of the market. The concentration of wealth in a few hands and the power of these particular companies can pose a threat.

The priorities of the Bill Gates Foundation are not necessarily those of a democratic decision.

Of what nature?

I would distinguish on the one hand what is linked to the activities of their companiessuch as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook (Editor’s note: a data leak from the social network, which would have helped promote Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016)and, on the other, the threats related to the use that these people can make of their wealth. Bill Gates’ foundation, for example, has nothing to do with Microsoft. Ditto when Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk venture into space: neither Amazon nor Tesla do it.

Are the current beacons sufficiently robust in terms of their power of influence?

For the market activitiesand therefore of the companies in question, there are a series of controls. In our countries, we have regulators for questions of competition, privacy or media plurality. And then, there is control of the market itself: if Meta is struggling at the moment, it’s because the current activity isn’t working as well and its bet on the metaverse doesn’t seem to be paying off. Even if companies can induce threats, these are therefore taken into account and regulations change accordingly.

Europe has also reminded Elon Musk that he could not do whatever he wants with Twitter in the name of his definition of freedom of expression, which he seems to be aware of…

It is the illustration of the two forces that I underlined. That of law enforcement, much stronger regulations in Europe than in the United States, which prevent him from doing what he wants. And then, some market forces: without proper moderation, to meet the aspirations of all participants, from users to advertisers, Twitter could disappear. Elon Musk must, in addition, take his reputation into account: he can’t do what he wants with Twitter knowing that if he wants Tesla to conquer the electric car market in China, he will have to deal with the firmness of the Chinese government.

As you mentioned, there are, on the other hand, the questions raised by the source and use of their personal wealth.

That is sure what causes the most problem. The phenomenal richness of these personalities comes from the fact that their businesses pay very little tax. However, the less taxes you pay, the more it is individuals who decide what to do with this wealth. I am not criticizing what a foundation like that of Bill and Melinda Gates does: it there needs to be complementarity between public and private funds. But there is a question of ethics: the priorities identified by Bill Gates are not necessarily those that would emanate from a democratic decision, for good or for bad. However, it is also necessary see the positive side: for global issues like climate change, it’s interesting to be able to rely on private visionaries capable of overcoming state divisions.

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