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This timely book holds up for scrutiny a great paradox at the core of the American Dream: a passionate belief in the principle of democracy combined with an equally passionate celebration of the creation of wealth. Americans treasure an open, equal society, yet we also admire those fortunate few who amass riches on a scale that undermines social equality.

In today's era of This timely book holds up for scrutiny a great paradox at the core of the American Dream: a passionate belief in the principle of democracy combined with an equally passionate celebration of the creation of wealth. In today's era of "vulture capitalist" hedge fund managers, internet fortunes, and a growing concern over inequality in American life, should we cling to both parts of the paradox?

Can we? To understand the problems that vast individual fortunes pose for democratic values, Robert Dalzell turns to American history.

Book Review: The Good Rich and What They Cost Us - WSJ

He presents an intriguing cast of wealthy individuals from colonial times to the present, including George Washington, one of the richest Americans of his day, the "robber baron" John D. Rockefeller, and Oprah Winfrey, for whom extreme wealth is inextricably tied to social concerns. Dalzell uncovers the sources of contradictory attitudes toward the rich, how the very rich have sought to be perceived as "good rich," and the facts behind the widespread notion that wealth and generosity go hand in hand. In a thoughtful and balanced conclusion, the author explores the cost of our longstanding attitudes toward the rich.

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This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. Sort order. Jan 22, Andrew rated it it was ok. Not a totally uninteresting set of thoughts about how Americans reconcile the ideal of equality with the reality of inequality. Answer: We pretend that obscenely rich people are very generous, and they pretend to be very generous to maintain the status quo of being obscenely rich.

For the very wealthy—and their sympathizers—extensive philanthropy is often held up as their personal nod to the world's unfairness. These generous philanthropists are considered to be the good ones. This question need not immediately descend into a screaming match between Marxists and free market demagogues.

It is not an inquiry into the personal character of billionaires. It should not be supported or refuted by emotional appeal to Warren Buffett's appealing cuddliness, or Steve Scwharzman's unappealing grandiosity. It can be examined as a question of what really is —as a simple query of the state of the world. Do the drawbacks of such a vast accumulation of wealth in the hands of any single person outweigh any amount of charitable gestures that person could take on behalf of good causes?

Does the very fact that we have a system that allows such vast inequality hurt us all more than all of the billionaires' philanthropy will ever help us? He considers popular wealthy Americans from George Washington onwards, and their contributions towards and detractions from the general welfare. In an interview with Heather Horn , Dalzell makes one incisive point worth considering for this large question.

It is about how great philanthropy can distort the public's ability to clearly perceive the larger question at hand: "The proportion of the very wealthy who are very generous is not large, but we tend to assume that there's a kind of universality to what happens here—there isn't. That's a cost we pay, because this whole notion of 'the good rich' I think reconciles us to levels of inequality in the society that in terms of our democratic ideology would otherwise be unacceptable.

This, I think, is undoubtedly true, and is, on a smaller scale, why philanthropy is routinely deployed by wealthy individuals and corporations alike as a PR move.

The Bright History (and the Dark Side) of America's Super-Rich Philanthropists

But for the sake of our discussion, it is not the motives that matter. Can even the most honestly generous billionaires be costing society more than they give? Bill Gates, of course, is the best case study—a man who's given tens of billions of dollars in what is, by all appearances, a very genuine effort to help the world's neediest.

In a classic essay, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer while noting that Gates is more generous than almost all of his peers , asks:. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given? This is the discussion as asked from the perspective of the very poor in the world who are still suffering.

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And it applies, of course, to all of us, not just billionaires. It is possible for a billionaire to give away billions without sacrificing anything at all, in terms of their own lifestyle. Likewise, many great philanthropists leave the money to charity in their will, allowing them to enjoy their wealth to its fullest extent for as long as they live. As far as morally admirable actions go, these are not so impressive.

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While a grand charitable donation from a billionaire may look staggering on paper, when viewed as a proportion of his wealth as a whole, it loses much of its luster. And when viewed by how much money the billionaire keeps after his philanthropy is done, the donations look even shabbier yet.

The purpose of this discussion is not to impugn the character of billionaires. It is to ask: What is the cost to society of the perception that we should be grateful to these wealthy men for their generosity? The assumptions implicit in that view are A that the wealthy are fully entitled to their money because they earned it on the basis of their own talents, and B that the need for society and its laws to protect the entitlement of the rich to their own wealth outweighs the aggregate societal needs that could be cured or ameliorated by that wealth poverty, disease, etc.

Gratitude towards the great philanthropists is based on the assumption that they are not and should not be expected to give their wealth back to the world; it is based on the assumption that the normal, default, acceptable behavior for the very wealthy is to hoard most of their wealth and put it solely to their own use. It is a view in which society grovels at the feet of great men who have succeeded where the rest of us have failed. Warren Buffett himself has attributed most of his success to the society he lives in—its governmental protections, its rule of law, its fair and transparent markets, its educational system, and so on.


The wise rich and anyone realistic about the role of chance in the outcomes of all of our lives recognize that personal talent is but one minor ingredient of vast success. If society is responsible for the vast majority of the success of the rich, then returning the vast majority of that wealth back to society is the least that the rich can do.

Really, it's the least, considering the fact that they would still be left incredibly wealthy. This level of giving back to the society that spawned them should be expected of the rich. Yes, society owes them its gratitude—the same gratitude that it owes you for paying your taxes, and volunteering, and making your annual donation to UNICEF.