Amity Shlaes on ‘The Good Rich’ and the Folly of Philanthropy
Religion & Liberty Online

Amity Shlaes on ‘The Good Rich’ and the Folly of Philanthropy

The Good Rich and What They Cost Us, Robert Dalzell Jr.In a new book, The Good Rich and What They Cost Us, Robert Dalzell Jr. aims to address “a great paradox at the core of the American Dream: a passionate belief in the principles of democracy combined with an equally passionate celebration of wealth.”

In a review for the Wall Street Journal, Amity Shlaes notes that although the book provides an in-depth look at the history of American philanthropy, the author’s own personal prescriptions lend too high a trust to government redistribution:

“The Good Rich” starts out like a tour through a portrait gallery, describing rather than judging. For much of his narrative, Mr. Dalzell refrains from giving his own opinion explicitly and reports merely that the rich have often blamed themselves for their lapses or oversize good fortune, or that their peers did.

Toward the book’s end, though, Mr. Dalzell drops his own screen, putting forward a familiar argument: that democracy suffers unless wealth and philanthropy are redistributed to reduce economic inequality. Even the “good rich” cost us: They don’t give wisely, Mr. Dalzell contends, spending too much on “elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, MIT and Princeton, which seems unlikely to reduce the income gap by much.” …For the sake of the public good, then, the rich must fashion better charity projects while handing over more of their money to the government.

Such philanthropic efforts deserve to be thoroughly examined. Likewise, from the poorest of us to the wealthiest, we should be energetic in examining our own activities, using discernment and wisdom in how we use our resources. But as Shlaes indicates, if it’s difficult for we individuals to wrestle with these deep questions about stewardship — particularly when we’re calling on the Divine for wisdom, as many philanthropists under Dalzell’s microscope claim to have done — how much more difficult will it be for a bloated government machine to utilize proper discernment?

Yet the more striking point, as Shlaes concludes, is that just as we need to reconsider the effectiveness of government redistribution, we would do well to also reconsider our philosophy of charity and philanthropy in the life of the entrepreneur. For although God will routinely call on us to give our resources away altogether, his transcendent purposes for our wealth needn’t be limited to donation buckets and bureaucratic reveries:

But there is another sort of giving that Mr. Dalzell doesn’t consider. Charity is a sideshow: What matters about the rich, if we are considering the public good, isn’t their charity but their investments—their ideas about what to do with “slimey petroleum” and microchips—and the jobs and activity they create. At only one point does Mr. Dalzell come close to acknowledging this third possibility. Commenting in wonderment on Steve Jobs’s indifference to charity, Mr. Dalzell observes: “He did not need it.” Nor, one could add, was charity what the world needed from Steve Jobs.

Read the full review here.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.