Obligations of the Wealthy

It is always instructive and even at times interesting (or even painful) to take a look at ourselves through the eyes of those who live on the other side of the pond. These days one can only shudder to think what the impression must be, but I shall avoid that in order to retain some semblance of my sanity — what is left of it.

In any event, in 1877 British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone took a careful look at what was going on in America — an America that Alexis de Tocqueville had previously examined under the microscope. He did not like what he saw. Considering the fact at the time that Cornelius Vanderbilt had just left his son $100 million Gladstone worried that

“Wealth on so grand a scale ought not to exist accompanied by no ‘obligation to society.'”

Gladstone thought that the government should take great wealth away from the wealthy and redistribute it if the wealthy did not take part in governing the country. That, of course, has not happened. In fact in the nineteenth century we have examples of such worthies as John D. Rockerfeller, Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie who amassed huge wealth and yet never participated in any way in the political arena. It appeared as though the wealthy worried more about their wealth than they did the fate of their nation. That seems to have set the tone for the country in the years that have followed.

What makes this of particular interest, of course, is that as the nation was aborning the Federalists, led by such men as Alexander Hamilton, sought to establish the wealthy at the head of the nation in positions of great power and influence. Some of the Founders, such as Hamilton and even Washington to a degree, regarded the wealthy as the closest thing we had to an aristocracy. The Senate would be peopled by the wealthy as a faint echo of the English House of Lords. They were convinced (as was Plato after seeing what a jury did to his beloved Socrates) that ordinary men and women would run the ship of state aground. The wealthy and the “well born” as Hamilton saw it were in a better position to know what was best for the “general good,” while the rest of the common folk were busy trying to make ends meet. Strange to say, a great many people agreed with Hamilton and the other Federalists — enough at any rate to ratify the Constitution which was written is such a way as to make sure that ordinary folks would be separated as far as possible from the seat of government.

Gladstone’s concern is especially interesting not because his observation flew directly into the face of what the founders had intended — namely, that the wealthy and well educated would rule the nation — but that it proved to be prescient. As things stand today, the very wealthy avoid public office — with a few notable exceptions — while they and their companies maintain a tight grip behind the scenes on the power that politics promises them, the financial avenues those they have chosen to rule open for them. I speak of the corporations which, thanks to the abortive Supreme Court decision regarding “Citizens United,” have considerable influence on who it is who runs the country and which direction it will take.

In a way my concern here dovetails with a more general concern I have voiced from time to time on these pages about the “obligation” the wealthy have to those around them. Some notable exceptions can be allowed, but by and large wealthy individuals tend to worry more about their portfolios than they do about the plight of those around them who, in many cases, do not have enough food to eat or a place to call their home.

But the general point that John Murrin makes in his book Rethinking America — from which my references to Gladstone arise — cannot be ignored and does make us pause:

“In a capitalist society that generates huge extremes of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk. . . .The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupts individuals. It threatens to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Indeed so. Those who have are obliged to concern themselves with those who have not: the more they have the greater the obligation. And the very wealthy have an obligation to others and to the nation that extends beyond simply promoting those laws that enhance their opportunity to become even more wealthy. Gladstone was right to be concerned.