Do we need — does progress demand — grand private fortunes?
Cheerleaders for grand fortune regularly make this case. The prospect of becoming phenomenally wealthy, they avow, gives people of great talent a powerful incentive to do great things. The enormous wealth these talented accumulate, the argument continues, propels philanthropy forward and benefits individuals and institutions that need a helping hand.
Even the idle rich, as conservative patron saint Frederick Hayek once insisted, have a socially constructive role to play. Wealth gives them the freedom to experiment “with new styles of living,” new “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.” The wealthy enrich our culture.
These defenders are wrong. The awesomely affluent have no net redeeming social value.
Their presence coarsens our culture, erodes our economic future, and diminishes our democracy. Any society that winks at the monstrously large fortunes that make some people decidedly more equal than others is asking for trouble.
But the trouble the rich engender often goes obscured. Most of us will spend our entire existences without ever coming into contact with anyone of enormous means. In the daily rush of our complicated lives, we seldom stop to ponder how those lives could change without a superrich pressing down upon us. So, let’s ponder.
An obvious initial question: Why do so many of us always seem to be rushing? Why are we stretching ourselves so thin? The answer we tell ourselves: We’re doing so much, we’re working so hard, to ensure our families ever more happiness.
But all our hard work, notes Cornell University economist Robert Frank, increasingly ensures nothing of the sort. Frank asks us, as an example, to contemplate the modern wedding, life’s signature happy day. What Americans spend on average for weddings, he points out, has tripled over recent years. “Nobody believes that marrying couples are happier,” observes Frank, “because we spend so much more now.”