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He did so, famously, by giving his riches away: to build thousands of libraries, concert halls, universities, intellectual institutions, even an endowment to pursue world peace.
Carnegie’s life and thought are a study in the defense of social hierarchy; they also explain how certain strains of liberalism have sought to make politics that might seem unacceptable instead appear to be the only moral way.
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835, the child of a weaver who was committed to the cause of Chartism, the mass movement for universal male suffrage that swept through Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.
By that time, the son was already well on his way to a successful business career.
Carnegie’s route to riches had much to do with luck, and with his ability to recognize the direction in which the economy was going.
Over the course of his life, he spent most of his fortune on charitable purposes—more than $350 million, worth in the hundreds of billions today.
At the same time, not coincidentally, Carnegie became a hugely successful popular author, writing books and articles and giving speeches limning his vision of capitalism, giving countless people in the Gilded Age and afterward a way to understand, and ultimately to justify, the remarkable concentration of wealth and expansion of inequality taking place around them.Carnegie’s father was among those destroyed by the rise of industrial textiles.His young son watched as his father’s craft collapsed and the family slid into poverty.Through his celebrations of philanthropy, Carnegie became a militant defender of economic inequality.Even as he feared that poor people might come to hate the rich in a highly unequal society, he argued that economic division was inevitable, indeed righteous.Like that of the Silicon Valley moguls, Carnegie’s charity emerged out of a profound discomfort about the world that his own business was helping to create, and his contributions, like theirs, affect millions of people.But Carnegie is a model for them not only because of his gifts.He continued to focus his energy and intelligence on making money by making steel for decades after writing to himself that he would need to do the opposite in order to rescue his integrity.He sought a different solution: a way to turn the relentless pursuit of riches into a vehicle for the common good, to reconcile being perhaps—as financier J. Morgan called him in 1901, while negotiating the mergers that created US Steel—“the richest man in the world” with his own sense of being a moral individual, a person who lived by the precepts of and beliefs in democracy that he had held as a boy.Carnegie is often cited as a model for people like Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett, for virtuous elites who use their fortunes for social betterment.A look back at his arguments in favor of inequality can be instructive today.