Why The 'Gospel of Wealth' Believes You Shouldn't Leave Your Children a Big Inheritance
Almost a century after his death, Andrew Carnegie’s wealth still benefits the society he’s left behind. Through the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the fortune of the famed industrialist has been used in crucial endeavors, from the discovery of insulin to founding libraries around the world.
Although his estate continues to run, the man dubbed the Father of Modern Philanthropy had very strong words about how a wealthy man’s estate should be administered. He jotted down his opinions in a book that would come to be known as The Gospel of Wealth, which the world's billionaires today regard as a sacred text in the dealings of philanthropy.
Carnegie’s beliefs were somewhat religious, too. He argued that society could replicate Emmanuel Swedenborg’s perception of heaven, in which the source of an angel’s happiness comes not from laboring for himself, but for each other. In favor of philanthropy, Carnegie thought it better to ditch individualism and selfishness, for it was “nobler” to live a life rooted in solidarity with fellowmen. In Wealth, he argues that though the caste system results in an imbalance in society, it is up to the rich man to steady the scales.
The three methods of wealth distribution
Carnegie listed down three modes by which the rich could choose to dispose of their excess wealth: leaving it to family members left behind; bequeathing it to public services; or administering it during the life of its possessor. While the first two were the most applied methods his time, Carnegie was most in favor of the third, least popular option, and thoroughly explains why.
First, he likens leaving a hefty inheritance to children as the line of succession in a monarchy, citing it as the “most injudicious.” While the wealthy man has good intentions for doing this, Carnegie thinks that the larger the sum of money left to one’s family, the more harm it will do them, and the wise man would know not to leave his family such a “burden.”
Second, leaving wealth for public services upon one’s death is considered selfish in Carnegie’s eyes. Carnegie believes this way is only a means of disposal of wealth since the man is content to wait until his death before his riches benefit the public. Some men leave their money to charities or foundations, but most of the time, the wealth is used improperly and does not follow the benefactor's wishes.
“Men who leave vast sums in this way may fairly be thought men who would not have left it at all, had they been able to take it with them,” Carnegie wrote. Therefore, he believes that praises should not befall this kind of man’s giving, since “there is no grace in their gifts.”
The final option of distributing the wealth during the lifetime of the rich man is believed to be the best way to bridge the rich and the poor. (Carnegie also thinks that this is a better alternative to communism because it requires “only the further evolution of existing conditions, not the total overthrow of our civilization”). The wealthy have the advantage of spending their days organizing benefactions for the betterment of the masses and the author believes that this is the best way for the wealthy to live their best life. Under this proposition, society will harbor an ideal state, “in which the surplus wealth of the few will become the property of many because administered for the common good.”
Carnegie argues that the rich man should not live exactly like Christ, but channel Christ’s spirit and adapt it to one’s situation.
Live a modest life
Carnegie championed the modest lifestyle. He preached that one of the responsibilities of the wealthy is to set an example: this being a “modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance.” We already know how he felt about providing for one’s family and this extends to this kind of lifestyle: practical and simple. He thinks spoiling family members is a misplaced form of affection and should only provide moderately.
One of Carnegie’s most memorable ideologies is that a wealthy man is a mere trustee for the poor. With his “superior wisdom [and] experience,” the wealthy man has the duty of doing what the poor cannot do for themselves.
Think before you give
Philanthropy should also be used as a vehicle to better a poorer fellowman’s life in the long-run. Carnegie notes that the main consideration in charitable giving to give only to those who will help themselves. Giving back to someone who has no intention of helping himself is only a temporary remedy and may foster vices of sloth or begging. Giving to beggars, for example, will only do evil, as one knows nothing of their habits. “[The wealthy man] only gratified his own feelings, saved himself from annoyance,” Carnegie said, adding, “This was probably one of the most selfish and very worst actions of his life.”
In order to do the most good, sometimes the wealthy man must know when to stop helping. “Assist, but rarely or never do all,” Carnegie said. “The best means of benefitting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.”