A “Gospel of Wealth” for the 21st century

Rich versus Poor

To fight peak oil and climate change we're going to have to deal with economic and social inequality. Photo: KatB Photography via Flickr.

Andrew Carnegie once wrote that there is nothing more debasing than the worship of money: “The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry.”

Later in life, Carnegie developed this notion more fully in Gospel of Wealth. Published in 1901, this essay became a touchstone of the great American philanthropic tradition. Carnegie’s position on the “duty of the man of Wealth” is quite clear:

First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living…to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon… and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community…bringing to (the poor) his superior wisdom…doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

His condescending tone notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue with Carnegie’s expressed intention, which also called for an aggressive estate tax. I suspect Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have read this essay, based on their centralized and self-administered (or, in Buffett’s case, delegated to Gates) approach to philanthropy. Carnegie may have inspired the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge drive as well.

No doubt Carnegie chose the word “Gospel,” the origin of which is literally “good news,” carefully, for the concluding words of his essay suggest he believed he had discovered the antidote to poverty, and overcome the ethical challenges of the wealth gap all in one stroke. Conveniently, the economic system was itself never called into question. “The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free,” he hastened to assure. The ascendance of Individualism and the duty of the wealthy would instead provide the required corrective for all social injustice.

Thus is the problem of Rich and Poor to be solved. The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.

Further, the last sentence of “Gospel of Wealth” is a prediction:

Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined some day to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring “Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.”

Much has changed in a century. Many of our “Captains of Industry” seem less concerned about “setting an example of modest, unostentatious living,” the “problem of Rich and Poor” has not been solved, and we still await “Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.” While there is much goodness and wisdom in Carnegie’s essay, it’s time for an updated Gospel of Wealth, grounded in 21st century realities that Carnegie did not foresee.

Carnegie’s essay reflects defensiveness about his own immense wealth accumulation, and a strong desire to defend it as a natural by-product of a Darwinian competitive system powered by individualism, human drive, and ingenuity. While this perspective on wealth is still widely shared today, and many would agree that what powers its accumulation has not changed, few on either side of the political spectrum would suggest we celebrate the “good news” of our present-day grotesque and growing wealth disparities.

The “individualism” that Carnegie celebrated is also increasingly being questioned by systems thinkers in multiple fields today. We understand that we live in an interdependent world, and that for the sake of both human and planetary health, holistic systems thinking must replace narrow, reductionist decision-making. We know how the subprime mortgage market of the United States can affect the banking system in Greece, and unemployment globally. We know that carbon emitted anywhere raises climate change risks for everyone. Nevertheless, our institutions remain organized around individual and national interests, hampering our ability to tackle global challenges.

At the same time, we are beginning to acknowledge the fundamental conflict between our exponentially expanding economic system and the geophysical boundaries of a finite planet. The risks associated with climate change, looming water scarcity, desertification, and biodiversity loss, are among the most obvious symptoms of this profound challenge. In the century since Carnegie wrote his “Gospel of Wealth,” the human population has increased 4-fold, while the global economy increased 19-fold, delivering immense wealth to many, but leaving half the world in poverty. Science tells us that this growth trajectory is physically unsustainable unless we can decouple material throughput from economic growth. Efficiency gains do not guarantee decoupling. In fact evidence suggests just the opposite.

Yet how little our Western cultural belief system about financial wealth has changed in response to our heightened consciousness about the ecological and societal challenges we face! Indeed Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the icons of modern wealth and philanthropy, continue to adhere to a worldview laid out a century ago by Andrew Carnegie, adopting it with a few tweaks here and there but without questioning any of its century-old core assumptions. The generous among us continue to practice philanthropy the “Carnegie way,” although it has clearly failed to deliver the desired outcomes.

Universal purpose of capital

How should we rewrite the “Gospel of Wealth” for the 21st century philanthropist? Let us first rename it the Universal Purpose of Capital, and declare the purpose of capital at this critical time in the history of civilization is to sustain life, restore health, and to catalyze a shared prosperity. With that purpose in mind, here are nine suggested guiding principles for the administration of wealth in the 21st century:

  1. Set an example of unostentatious living that provides for the legitimate “modest” needs and wants of your dependents. After doing so, consider all surplus revenues that come to you simply as “trust funds.” (So far we are paraphrasing Carnegie). Think clearly about what constitutes true well-being.
  2. Understand the stakes. Financial capital fuels the economic system. The economic system can either foster a just society and a flourishing planet, or lead to a highly unethical social system and ecosystem collapse. The thoughtful administration of these “trust funds” is a profound duty. Such a duty is critical to the survival of capitalism itself and our way of life, extending far beyond current notions of fiduciary duty.
  3. Operate out of humility and recognition of our collective ignorance in the face of unprecedented complexity and uncertainty. Be cautious not to confuse your ability to amass financial wealth with the wisdom to administer it for the greatest collective good in a complex and interdependent world.
  4. Understand that we are working on the emergence of a profound shift in the economic system. The strategic deployment of your “trust fund” which represents the fruits of hard work, but also the fruits of our unsustainable system, can enable this emergence. Diversity of thought, decentralization, and collaboration are essential to any “emergence” process. Appoint a highly diverse trans-disciplinary group of advisors to help guide you. Follow Buffett’s example by delegating this immense responsibility where appropriate, but don’t follow Buffett’s lead by concentrating too much power and responsibility in one place, no matter how smart that place may be.
  5. Allow your capital to slow down or rest while awaiting thoughtful deployment into building a more resilient economy. Rest heals. All money has an impact, unless it is at rest. Consumption, investment, and philanthropy all have consequences. Don’t let artificial distinctions such as the tax code confuse your understanding about the impact of capital. Rest is an integral part of all sustainable natural systems.
  6. Study systems and integrate systems science into your strategy. Natural systems science teaches us that all sustainable systems balance efficiency with resiliency. After two centuries of driving for efficiency, capital must lead the mature economies of the developed world into a place of balance between efficiency and resiliency by investing in resiliency, while at the same time fueling the development of just emerging economies.
  7. Consider the distinction between system shifting and problem solving. Recognize we live in an era of profound system shifting and challenge yourself to participate productively as a catalyst for it. Invest in system transformation, in addition to critical problem solving. Recognize the power of real investment flows as a catalyst to shift the economic system. Connect this insight with the investment strategy of the “trust funds.”
  8. Dare to lead. Recognize that our political institutions are not designed to address the profound challenges facing civilization. View the immense concentration of wealth and power in your hands as an opportunity for leadership. The wise and purpose-driven mobilization of your “trust fund,” in stewardship of capitalism and civilization itself, can help fuel the system transformation we collectively need. The rising consciousness of global civil society, manifesting itself in countless ways, is already pointing the way for us. It’s time for capital to join in with bold leadership.
  9. Begin. Time is not on our side. Consider the time value of impact as well as the time value of money. If you love your children and care about their future, the discount rate for impact is negative.

The time for a new “Gospel of Wealth” is long overdue. We must consider the purpose of capital in a prosperous, resilient, and interdependent economic system. This must start in the consciousness of individuals, before it can transcend institutions of government and business. Guided by these proposed principles, perhaps the individuality, drive, and ingenuity which Carnegie used to generate wealth, can now be turned to regenerate health – social, ecological, and economic.

— John Fullerton, cross posted from the Rudolf Steiner Institute.

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  1. says

    A spiritual life or a commitment to the basic tenant of any and all of the religious systems (if just as a point of reference), will instruct you to live as if the rest of the world mattered. Compassion and respect – which is what I am assuming your are really talking about – will be the wellspring for all other acts of kindness. Be they with time or capital or both.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    Lots of good sentiments there, but a fundamental part is missing in the discussion. That part is the initial idea of accumulation of wealth. Rather than creating overhead systems that try to redistribute the wealth, taking a systems approach should also try to put wealth to use as soon as it is created, rather than letting it be accumulated by a few bullies and connivers. In other words, if you want to stop the boom/bust cycles, you have to stop the boom, not just the bust. That means taxing consumption (the masses) so they don’t buy things that are not necessary, and so that they put their efforts into meeting their own needs first, rather than meeting the needs of the wealthy by working for the wealthy, entertaining the wealthy, and buying products from the wealthy with money they are paid by the wealthy, who always get a percentage of every transaction. THIS is the fundamental concept of localization.

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