The Pledge

andrew carnegie

19th Century Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie was (a) more than okay with the right to make as much money as you want; but he (b) was not okay with spending it any old way you like. He had some very specific notions about the latter:[1]

“By the late 1880s, Carnegie’s place as one of the wealthiest men in the United States was cemented… With the time afforded him as the controlling shareholder, Carnegie put forth theories on capitalism. the human condition, and the American Republic. In 1889, Carnegie wrote an article simply titled “Wealth” — it would soon become known as “Gospel of Wealth….” In it he offered an unapologetic defense of the system that enabled great wealth such as his.

“[Carnegie believed that] the price for… material progress — ‘cheap comforts and luxuries’ — was great wealth inequality… Any thinking person, Carnegie surmised, would conclude ‘that upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends — the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.’ But his defense of capitalism was a setup for a most startling conclusion.

“In the article Carnegie argued that the greatest of men, capitalists, should be unencumbered to accumulate wealth. But once great wealth was achieved, these men should, during their lifetimes, give it away. As the possession of wealth was proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability, it made little sense that it should be bequeathed to descendants. Inherited wealth would undermine the argument that those with wealth earned it, deserved it.

“Next, he held that if men waited until death to give the money away, less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned. While Carnegie viewed wealth as a symbol of intellectual mastery, the actual possession of it should be considered only a trust fund, with ‘the man of great wealth becoming mere trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could for themselves. The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.’

“Carnegie was hailed by newspapers, socialists, workingmen, and, more discreetly, even his fellow capitalists… for such enlightened views.”

Carnegie’s legacy of endowments endures to this day. (I have clear childhood memories of our small town Carnegie library.) Carnegie’s fellow Robber Barons created similarly enduring legacies, such as those reflected in the following names:  Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Ezra Cornell, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and James Duke.

Carnegie’s philosophy also endures today. albeit expressed in terms  more in tune with the ethos of our times. Consider, for example, the Giving Pledge, formed “in an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.”

As of May 2018, 183 individuals or couples from 22 countries had taken the pledge, representing total net worth closing in on a trillion dollars. Some of the Pledgers are household names; most aren’t. I randomly clicked several of their photos on the Giving Pledge home page, which takes you to their statements about  why they took the pledge. Noticeably absent is Carnegie’s belief that capitalists are “that the greatest of men,” that “the possession of wealth [is] proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability,” or that wealth is a “symbol of intellectual mastery.” Nor is there an expressed fear that “less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned.” Instead, there’s a certain humility to many of the statements:  they often mention lessons learned from forebears or other role models, and often express gratitude for having been “blessed” or gotten lucky, such as this one:

“Allow me to start by saying that I am not sure I am a worthy member of this group of extraordinary individuals. I consider that I have been lucky in life.”

Other predominant themes in the statements are (a) a recognition that attaining great wealth is not solely a matter of rugged individualism, but that cultural and historical context deserve a lot of credit, and (b) a belief that giving back is a way to honor this reality. I.e., wealth made possible by historical and cultural circumstance ought to benefit all members of that culture, including the most needy. As it turns out, this isn’t just a kind-hearted philosophy of life, it’s a statement of the economic terms upon which much wealth has in fact been created and in the past and continues to be created today.

State-sponsored policies that favor timely and innovative ideas and technologies represent a significant type of societal support for wealth creation . We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan, (2017).

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to "anyone wants to create change in their workplaces and personal lives." He draws insight and perspective from his prior career in the law, business, and consulting, also from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, technology, and life experience.

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