The Gospel of Wealth
In my last post reviewing the autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, I promised a review of his famous essay included in the end of that tome. Carnegie was wrote numerous books and articles, but he is probably best remembered for his essay “The Gospel of Wealth.” In this essay, Carnegie sets himself apart from his multimillionaire colleagues by declaring his philosophy towards wealth.
First, Carnegie clarifies what he means by wealth. We’re not talking here about the 401k retirement account of some middle-class factory worker. We’re talking about so much money you could fill an ocean and swim in it. Wealth in that sense is possessed by a small percentage of the population.
Carnegie defines the problem presented by wealth — the kind that absolutely boggles the mind — in the very first sentence of his essay: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” In other words, how can the mega-wealthy be mega-wealthy without the impoverished classes rising up in a repeat of the French Revolution?
Carnegie begins his solution by defending the existence of the mega-wealthy:
I agree completely. Those “refinements of civilization” benefit all who embrace them.
He then enters a brief and very general examination of history as a background for competing economic theories of socialism, communism, and individualism. He defends individualism by referencing the great accomplishments made by men of creativity and industry, accomplishments which have benefited society as a whole and which could not be possible in societies in which the government distributed the rewards of those who worked to those who did not. I agree wholeheartedly. As Carnegie says, socialism and communism are “not evolution, but revolution.”
As much as I agreed with Carnegie during this first half of his essay, I would agree with him even more during the second half. The question he posed in his very first sentence now takes a new form: What should the mega-wealthy do their wealth? Carnegie presents three possibilities:
Carnegie takes something of a side road here by defending the estate tax. In my younger days, I thought estate taxes were an affront to freedom. But reading Carnegie, I find myself agreeing with him that high estate taxes are beneficial for society and therefore a good thing. High taxes on an activity discourage that activity, and I agree with Carnegie that distributing wealth after one’s death should be discouraged. The wealthy should distribute it for the public good before they die. But Carnegie takes it one step further.
I don’t like the arrogance implied towards the end of the paragraph-length sentence, but I do like that the man of wealth is the one who decides how his wealth should be distributed. Some of used this sentence to argue that wealth does not really belong to the mega-wealthy but rather to the community because that wealth would never exist without the labor of the community. It’s not far then to step into socialism or communism with the idea that the State is best disposed to decide how to distribute wealth because they really own it after all.
I disagree there. The laboring classes do not own any of the wealth amassed by the captains of industry. They own only what they are paid, and that is according to the agreement they made when they gave their labor. If the captain of industry have paid them according to that agreement, then they have been dealt with justly because they have received all that is their own. They didn’t agree to labor for the wealth of the mega-wealthy; they agreed to labor for their wages. So long as they receive those wages, they have what is their own. That’s what they agreed to.
Again, I like how Carnegie proposes the man of wealth to be the one who decides how the wealth that he amassed should be distributed. This arrangement is entirely consistent with the principle of individualism Carnegie defended earlier in his essay. Carnegie also goes on to decry almsgiving, saying that means should be provided only to those who are willing to help themselves. Put together, this proposal provides a wonderful solution to the question Carnegie proposes at the start.
But Carnegie saves his best punch for last.
Wow! That’s something else. “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” What a powerful philosophy! As I said in my last post, I don’t admire everything about Carnegie, but I can’t help but admire this. And it’s really made me think about my own philosophy towards wealth. In large measure I agree with Carnegie. I intend to die as penniless as I came into the world. I’m not sure exactly how much money will pass into my hands, but whatever the amount I’ll gift it all away before I die.
There’s much more I could say about Carnegie’s essay. And I’d love to write something tha continues the conversation about the essay based on someone who disagrees with Carnegie or who thinks his essay actually supports socialism or communism. But for now, I’ll simply express my gratitude that I read the essay and had the moments of reflection that it gave me.
The life of a mentor
I’ve started to take some advice I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, that advice being to learn from the best. You don’t have to know someone personally for that someone to be your mentor. I’m very glad for that, because I have a certain admiration for Andrew Carnegie. I use the word certain to qualify my admiration. No man or woman is perfect, and so everyone has flaws. This means we have to separate the wheat from the chaff in our mentors — receiving the wheat while rejecting the chaff.
Why admire this man? Wasn’t he one of those robber barons from a past century? Yes, he was an extremely wealthy man, at one time the richest in the world. But he was far different from his millionaire associates. Long before he made his fortune, he determined that he needed only so much and that the excess should be given away to help others. He truly believed that it was the duty of every wealthy person to give away whatever fortune had been acquired.
That’s why I was thrilled to find his essay “The Gospel of Wealth” included in the book when I went looking for a copy of his autobiography. I’ll have more on that important work later, mostly because I have quite a bit to say about it. But for now, I’d like to review the main event, which is his autobiography.
Being autobiography, there is that temptation to gloss over events and make the result seem more glamorous than they actually were. Such is certainly the case with Carnegie’s description of the Homestead riots. Notice I said riot, not strike. It may have started out as a strike, but it turned violent and so became a riot.
I find it most interesting that Carnegie barely mentions Henry Frick at all and passes off the unfortunate turn of events as the responsibility of his associates whom he doesn’t name but to whom (as he claims) he left control of affairs. He also repeats like a broken phonograph the mantra of “Well, everyone knows that if Andy had been here, nothing drastic would have happened. Everyone loves Andy, and so he could have calmed the situation before it went too far.”
The truth is a far cry from that. Carnegie’s mail correspondence with Frick paints a very different picture. Carnegie knew what Frick what doing and how he was approaching the labor problem. In fact, Carnegie had hired Frick precisely because of how he handled labor problems. Frick had a reputation for ruthlessly destroying unions and leaving the hands of other associates “clean.” The idea that Carnegie had no idea how Frick was handling the Homestead riot or that he would not have condoned Frick’s actions is believable only to someone who doesn’t possess more information than what Carnegie presents in his autobiography.
Not all of what Carnegie presents is a shady tale. Some of his lessons learned about life and business are really valuable, and these lessons are one of the principal reasons why I admire Carnegie. Some of his social and religious views are interesting as well, although I must especially part ways with him when he declares himself a fervent disciple of Herbert Spencer. This popular late-19th-century philosopher was most famous for applying Darwin’s theory of evolution to social, economic, and political settings. Carnegie adamantly believed that everything would get only better and better as the stronger elements of society gained power and control while the weaker elements faded away.
I don’t think history has told that story. Are our political institutions less corrupt today than they were 100 or even 200 years ago? Is society more free today than it was in those days? I would argue that we are much less free today than we were then given that the government controls and regulates much more of the activity of its citizens today than it did then. Add to that the taxes we pay today (income tax didn’t really catch on in this country until the end of Carnegie’s life), and what we see is the devolution of society, not its evolution.
Throughout his text, Carnegie tries to make that evolution argument in the realm of religion, but again I would counter him. Carnegie believes that man is progressing towards a more and more refined understanding of God. I don’t believe that is true of society as a whole, especially given that more and more people today don’t even believe in God. Among those who do, we have more churches today than we did 100 years ago. You would think if our understanding of God were being refined we would come together more instead of splintering apart.
All that said, Carnegie’s autobiography is a very pleasant read, especially for someone like myself who has an abiding interest in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the true dawn of the modern technological revolution that drives our society today. My only real gripe with it is that Carnegie never finished it. He worked on it off and on in the years after Teddy Roosevelt was President, but then the text abruptly ends.
Again, it’s good to have information not provided in Carnegie’s text. His text ends just as what we know today as World War I begins. That war absolutely devastated Carnegie, so much so that he entered a very deep depression. Had he lived just one more year longer, he would have seen the end of that war. I’m sad to see the life of a man I admire end that way, but I’m glad that those who came after him did not try to finish his work. Let it stand or fall on Andy and Andy alone.
Overall, I recommend the book to anyone interested in hearing more about Carnegie’s life from his own mouth. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. His abrupt, unfinished ending and the points of disagreement I’ve already outlined really drop it to 3 stars, but the life and business lessons are really quite valuable and so raise the rating up a star. I did enjoy reading the book and look forward to reading a more exhaustive biography on his life in the near future.
Reading this book and thinking back on my own career experiences, I found myself nodding my head in agreement and saying “Yep!” over and over again. I wish I had this book when I was starting out so that I didn’t have to learn those lessons in the School of Hard Knocks. I might also have had a very different career as an engineer, since some of the hard knocks that taught me important lessons also closed the door of opportunity to me on occasion. Now that I have a new career, I can learn from the past and then put it behind me.
Perhaps the best idea I gained from this book was the need to be more careful in who surrounds me. We all tend to become our social orbit, because we are biologically hardwired to acclimate our sense of “normal” from the people immediately around us. Mediocre performers often are surrounded by others who think that mediocre performance is good enough. If you want to be more successful, then surround yourself with the people who have the type of success that you want. Do what they do long enough, and the success they enjoy will be yours to enjoy as well.
Given my recent retreat, which I continue to hail as my best vacation ever, I found this book refreshing and energizing. I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars, though, because the ending was . . . well, not really there. There’s no epilogue or final chapter that brings everything together or provides a summary. The book just ends. Ironic indeed that an author writing such a great tome on self-discipline couldn’t muster a little more of that virtue to “finish the job.”
Be that as it may, I still recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about specific ways to become more successful in any area of life, be it professional or personal. It’s definitely a quick read (well, at about 300 pages, quick for me) but packed with powerful information. I’m glad to add this tome to my library and even happier to get it in hardcover for such a bargain price!
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