When Walter B. Wriston died in January, New York lost its greatest banker since Alexander Hamilton and its foremost civic leader. His accomplishments sprang from a rock-solid faith in the power of freedom. From the time he first saw an encryption machine as a World War II signal-corps lieutenant, Wriston grasped the liberating potential of information technology; and as chief executive of Citibank for 17 years, he understood that his billion-dollar bet on computerization—including the world’s first galaxy of ATM machines—was part of a development that would allow capital and information to flow almost instantaneously around the globe, diluting the power of governments to control the economic and political lives of citizens. Information technology enables capital to move freely to wherever it is wanted and treated well, Wriston liked to say; and that mobility creates a “plebiscite on policy,” constraining governments from excessive interference with free markets and the rule of law at the risk of frightening capital away.
Free markets don’t by themselves create free people, Wriston understood, but you can’t have a free citizenry without them; and the same information revolution that has worked to liberate markets also fosters political liberty, because enslaved peoples now know that the rest of the world lives differently, and thuggish leaders can’t oppress their citizens or neighbors without the rest of the world’s noticing, disapproving, and withdrawing investment. The communists, with their characteristic note of coarseness and violence, liked to jeer that the capitalists would sell you the rope to hang them with; Wriston knew that what the capitalists are really selling are the instruments to break free of totalitarian chains.
After building Citi into the first truly global bank and transforming the nature of his entire industry with innovation after innovation, Wriston hoped to extend free markets to that bastion of statist central planning that was his adopted city, New York. From the time that he, together with Governor Hugh Carey and investment banker Felix Rohatyn, heroically saved Gotham at the eleventh hour from bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, setting up the Financial Control Board and the Municipal Assistance Corporation and persuading the city’s banks and union pension funds to buy its bonds, Wriston labored to make pols and his fellow movers and shakers understand that the city’s vast tax-and-spend government was driving its wealth-creating corporations out of town,
so that the 140-odd Fortune 500 headquarters that enriched New York at mid-century have dwindled to 30 today. And the same mobility of capital and information technology that worked to create freedom throughout the world, Wriston knew, was allowing this flight of companies and jobs to occur. With computer and communications networks, corporations no longer needed to be physically near their customers, suppliers, and financiers to function.
The Manhattan Institute, City Journal’s publisher, became Wriston’s primary instrument for ensuring that Gotham would be the capital of the twenty-first century as it had been the capital of the twentieth. He joined our board of trustees in 1986, two years after retiring as CEO of Citicorp, and he was a tireless and generous supporter and booster. Equally important, with what his close friend George P. Schultz calls his “easy brilliance,” he was an inexhaustible source of ideas, his naturally quick and curious mind given an especially inquisitive bent from his childhood, when his father was a pathbreaking president of Brown University, and then enriched with a store of practical experience and wisdom from life at the very center of global finance. That easy brilliance shone in his books Risk and Other Four-Letter Words, a 1986 collection of essays, and The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our World, published in 1992.
Imposingly tall, patrician and reserved in his banker’s pinstripes, Wriston always set forth his very decided views with disarming modesty and pithy, epigrammatic concision and wit, although from time to time the flash of steel at the center of his convictions shone through. He was an intellectual and moral touchstone, of matchless integrity, selflessly public-spirited and civic-minded in a way that is harder and harder to find. He was, in the words of his friend and neighbor Henry Kissinger, “the type of American who has made this country the hope of the world.”
The Manhattan Institute is proud that its prestigious annual lecture bears his name, and President Bush rightly recognized his matchless worth in awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year—all the more appropriately, in that freedom was Wriston’s creed.
With a friendly and worldly irony that a postmodernist youth could only envy, Wriston liked to greet you with the closing he remembered from the days when he corresponded with French bankers: “Be assured, my dear Sir, of my sentiments the most elevated and my respects the most profound.” Same to you, dear Walt—and our affection the most undying.