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Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth

sun7oct2007—40w280d76%— 06h36m00s—0utc

The growing disposition to tax more and more heavily large estates left at death is a cheering indication of the growth of a salutary change in public opinion. The State of Pennsylvania now takes — subject to some exceptions — one-tenth of the property left by its citizens. The budget presented in the British Parliament the other day proposes to increase the death-duties; and, most significant of all, the new tax is to be a graduated one. Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for – public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life.

Ugh. I actually hope to use any wealth I happen to make to help the causes I believe in and we even coincide in some of those causes, but I recoil from the reasoning that led Andrew Carnegie WP to philanthropy. A reasoning he most famously presented in his Gospel of Wealth, quoted above.

In what could charitably be attributed to a deep generational chasm (he did wrote more than 100 years ago), he’s insufferably unctuous, enlisting at every opportunity the “wise men,” “the thoughtful man,” “most of those who think,” “the best and most enlightened public sentiment,” and a further, seemingly endless cohort to his aid, substituting them for argument.

He frequently employs a fatalism I’ve always found devious, the fatalism that makes some limp effort to justify the status quo only to conclude with the friendly provision that it is all inevitable anyway.

But most depressingly, he makes scant sense and obscures rather than illuminate. Speaking in pompous, hyperbolic generalities, he never goes around to explaining just why wealth accumulation is increasing — he only talks vaguely about assembling “thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house,” as if wealth creation were a matter of mere herding. He uses dubious anecdotal evidence —a “most worthy” man’s impromptu giving of a quarter is interpreted as “probably one of the most selfish and very worst actions of his life”— and rather idiotic “insights” into the mind of men ) — at one point he actually claims the rich would take in stride being confiscated, happy to brag about how much they’d been deprived of.

He seems to believe that rich men acquire their wealth by doing something extraordinarily good, necessary, and rare. Yet, he entitles them to no right to what they’ve earned. They should “provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him” and consider the leftovers society’s trust fund, theirs only lent to administer for the good of all.

It’s not all bad, I actually sympathize, from a distance, with his Randian views on charity and property, and I also agree with his Hayekian wish for evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes. Still, the essay is unusually abysmal. If this is the best tract we have arguing for private philanthropy no wonder there’s so little.

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