Wall Street - A Question Of Good Citizenship
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
SOME time ago a discussion went the rounds of the press on the subject of "good citizenship." Special and pointed reference was made to the distinctly wealthy citizen, to the man who had become conspicuous in the eyes of the public as being classed among the millionaires; and the opinion seemed to be held by not a few that wealth has a tendency to impair a man's usefulness as a citizen. In fact, some people are disposed to think that a rich man cannot be a good citizen, any more than he can enter the kingdom of Heaven. For the latter opinion we have the highest scriptural authority, but in neither case would it be justice to the opinion to interpret the language literally. The Nazarene simply meant that the man who made a god of his riches could not enter the kingdom of Heaven, for surely no one can imagine that Christ would have excluded from Heaven such men as we see in our times and in this nation spending millions in charity with their own hands, and make provision for having millions more spent in the same laudable cause after their death. I am now thinking of such men as John Rockefeller, who has already spent ten or twelve millions, and Andrew Carnegie, who has spent probably an equal amount; both of whom propose to spend many more. In the same honorable catalogue I may include the Vanderbilts and many others. If I should go into the list of the deceased, even of those who have died within my own recollection, their names and the amounts of their bequests alone would extend this chapter far beyond the limits allotted to it. The extent and number of the charities of the late Cornelius Vanderbilt will probably never be known. Surely, Jesus of Nazareth never meant that the souls of these benevolent individuals should wallow eternally in despair, because they had been the mere instruments of collecting large fortunes, the greater portion of these fortunes being distributed where they would relieve the sufferings of humanity, and assist a large number of the community to avail themselves of a higher state of mental development than they had been provided with means to reach, merely by the accident of birth. Peter Cooper's gifts and bequests afford vivid illustrations of this point. Who can imagine for a moment that Saint Peter would be commissioned by the Most High to send to perdition his philanthropic namesake because the modern Peter had the prudence, industry, and economy to gather the wealth that put the institute which goes by the grand old man's name on such a financial footing as to teach thousands to earn their living in intellectual pursuits who otherwise would never have enjoyed the means of raising themselves above the level of the ordinary unskilled day laborer? Whatever the meaning of the mysterious Man of Nazareth might have been, common sense rejects the brimstone theory in its application to such a man as Peter Cooper, for instance, though he was not what was regarded in his day as an orthodox Christian. But, like another eminent man in his school of faith, " to do good was his religion," though unlike the other he did not claim " the world as his country," although in every sense it was. Peter Cooper was peculiarly and characteristically an American of the old school, and the truest type of genuine American manhood. I think it requires, or, at least, should require no further argument to show that the strictly orthodox interpretation as applied to a man like Peter Cooper is unutterably absurd and can be entertained only by unreasoning fanatics. I regard the opinion of the reprobation of rich men, simply because they are rich, as the rankest heterodoxy against the science of common sense and the best interests of the social condition as at present constituted with the family as its unit, in contradistinction to socialism and a paternal government. The wealth accumulators, I contend, are, as a rule, the best citizens. In fact, they are the citizens, above all others, who make it possible under our present system to attain the highest enjoyment and development, physical, moral, and spiritual, of which mankind thus far is capable. How far these wealth accumulators are mere automatons, working through the media of apparent selfishness, is a question with which modern philosophers are just beginning to grapple; but the point that I wish to make clear is that the wealth producers and accumulators, with but few exceptions, are the hardest worked slaves in existence and have on the whole the least enjoyment, as the world estimates enjoyment, out of the wealth which, in common parlance, they are said to create. Of all writers on political economy, John Ruskin puts this condition of the wealth-creator, so-called, in the truest and most vivid, though in somewhat a ludicrous, light. He takes the position that the error in the popular view is the confusion of guardianship with possession, the real state of men of property being, too commonly, that of curators or managers, not possessors, of wealth. Of the man of wealth viewed in this light, Ruskin says: - " He cannot live in two houses at once. A few bales of silk and wool will suffice for the fabric of all the clothes he can ever wear, and a few books will probably hold all the furniture good for his brain. Beyond these, in the best of our but narrow capacities, we have but the power of administering, or maladministering, wealth. And with multitudes of rich men, administration degenerates into curatorship. They merely hold their property in charge as trustees for the benefit of some person or persons to whom it is to be delivered upon their death, and the position explained in clear terms would hardly seem a covetable one." And again: “What would be the probable feelings of a youth, on his entrance into life, to whom the career hoped for was proposed in such terms as these: 'You must work unremittingly and with your utmost intelligence during all your available years. You will thus accumulate wealth to a large amount, but you must touch none of it, beyond what is needful for your support. Whatever sums you gain beyond those required for your decent and moderate maintenance, and whatever beautiful things you may obtain possession of, shall be properly taken care of by servants, for whose maintenance you will be charged, and whom you will have the trouble of superintending, and on your deathbed you shall have the power of determining to whom the accumulated property shall belong, or to what purposes it shall be applied'?" And yet again: - "The labor of life under such conditions would probably be neither zealous nor cheerful, yet the only difference between this position and that of the ordinary capitalist is the power which the latter supposes himself to possess, and which is attributed to him by others, of spending his money at any moment. This pleasure taken in the imagination of power to part with that with which we have no intention of parting, is one of the most curious though commonest forms of the eidolon or phantasm of wealth." Now, if Ruskin's picture is a true-to-life portrait, and I am inclined to think it is, in spite of what to some people might seem its humorous exaggeration, then there can be no true reason why the wealthiest man should excite envy. In fact, the more wealthy the less enviable is he, as the burden of his mere trusteeship is the heavier. As a general rule, and not forgetting the few conspicuous exceptions, the man who is wealthy is naturally led to be a good citizen, even if he is the most selfish of individuals. His desire to increase his wealth is a potent cause of its distribution, in which operation it must assist those who assist in its circulation, and benefit every man and woman through whose hands it passes as the medium of exchange for the necessities and luxuries of life. There is a glaring and morbid exception to this rule. That is in the case of the man who hoards his money, thus keeping it out of circulation, and thereby depriving both himself and others of the profits and increase that it is capable of bestowing when prudently invested. Such men violate the law of their being as mediums of distribution. Happily they are rare, for the faculty of acquisitiveness is stronger, after all, than the mania for hoarding, and generally overcomes the morbid fear of losing what they have in the risk of augmenting it. This passion for hoarding strikes at the root of national prosperity by retarding the growth of wealth, which is usually the consequence of investment; and it is the duty of every citizen, in fact, it is one of the tests of good citizenship, for the successful man to share his prosperity with the people among whom he has achieved it. It is undoubtedly true that wealth brings new temptations, but in making money most men so broaden and occupy their minds that they are better fitted for withstanding those temptations. As far as national wealth is concerned, and looking at the subject from a patriotic point of view,-which is absolutely necessary in discussing the question of citizenship, unless a man claims to be a citizen of the world, -the chronic absentee is a bad citizen. He is no better for the United States than the English landowners are for Ireland, and he stands in a similar relation to his fellow-citizens as those rack-rent landlords do to their tenantry. Each draws a portion of the life blood out of his respective country to spend it in luxuries abroad. The question arises then, Is a man justified in playing universal philanthropist at the expense of his compatriots? Should the latter be required to contribute to support the elegant leisure of a person who has ignored them as fellow-citizens? I know there is no law at present against it, but it seems to me from a moral standpoint that there should be set limits to the extent to which it should be tolerated. If a man virtually de-citizenizes himself, should he be permitted to retain all the rights and property benefits of good citizens whose constant aim and efforts have been in the direction of the best interests of the country? It seems to me that equity, at least, should require an extra tax for this discriminating indulgence. We have passed laws against the immigration of people who come here simply with the intention of earning all the money they can in a certain time and of going home to spend it there, without any intention of assimilating with our people, or assisting to build up the nation in return for benefits received. Are they any worse than these habitual absentees? Hardly so bad, I should say, as they do not owe their origin and birth to this country. Their procedure, though selfish, is not unnatural. There is a third influence at work which is antagonistic to the increase of wealth in this country, and that is the constant tendency for some years past to lower the rate of interest for money. To discuss this subject in all its bearings and in the numerous variety of its causes would require an entire chapter; but one thing is evident in our social and political conditions, and that is that " populism " is undermining the very sources from which higher rates of interest were formerly drawn by becoming a potent instrument in rendering the status of society less secure. It threatens the stability of property, on which all security is founded; and if once a feeling of insecurity should begin to spread, it would give rise to a transfer of capital to other scenes, where social and political conditions were less liable to change, and where it would incur less risk from the fluctuations of property values and incomes. There is nothing regarding which people are so sensitive as variations in the income upon which they are obliged to rely for the purpose of supporting a certain prescribed social status. Anything calculated to disturb this equilibrium makes them nervous and exacting as to the nature of the security for their capital and its income. The growing populism of the Democratic party in this country calls, therefore, for the most profound thought of our wisest statesmen, and the adaptation of the best measures to avert its evil influences. To establish the unquestionable security of property and income is one of the most important questions of the day for the statesman to solve. And the certain means of maintaining that security without liability to disturbance or loss of confidence therein, is a question which all good citizens are bound to consider with the deepest solemnity. It goes to the root of our very existence as the great Republic.