In The Good Rich, Robert F. Dalzell Jr. exposes “the wealthiest philanthropists for the imperfect creatures that they are,” reports Amity Shlaes in The Wall Street Journal (1/16/13). The book presents “a series of profiles of our rich countrymen down the centuries and their efforts to burnish their reputations with philanthropy or other gestures of ethical concern.” Its premise is two-fold: First, that Americans approve of and respect great wealth and second, that this “admiration for the rich functions as a kind of veil, hiding the rich man’s shortcomings from our eyes.”
Even George Washington is not spared from scrutiny, as the author notes the founding father’s “tormented effort to reconcile his love of freedom with his ownership of slaves … Washington, Mr. Dalzell reminds us, spent years neurotically rearranging his affairs to curtail slavery in his household … The Washington slaves did eventually go free, but only after the president’s death.” John D. Rockefeller, meanwhile, “is remembered by us today, in part, for the objects of his own philanthropy,” which stands in contrast with his “aggressive machinations” in the petroleum business, and, “despite his Baptist rectitude,” his vanity.
In modern times, we have Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and the “so-called Giving Pledge,” a signed promise that they “and other billionaires have signed in recent years, promising to devote at least half their fortunes to philanthropy.” Are their motives generosity or “a desire to counter populist anger at the notorious one percent”? Then there’s the curious case of Steve Jobs, and his “indifference to charity.” The author suggests this was so because Jobs “did not need it.” Perhaps, Amity Shlaes suggests, charity was not what the world needed from Mr. Jobs.