Gospel Of Wealth Summary

Andrew Carnegie

Gospel Of Wealth

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Gospel Of Wealth Summary

In 1889, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie published a pair of articles later known as “The Gospel of Wealth” in the North American Review. The essays laid out his ideas about how the ultra-rich should use their assets to ameliorate the unequal distribution of wealth, rather than hoarding their money. By this time, Carnegie was the second richest person in the US – a man whose fortune was built through canny industry monopolies and through often violent strike-busting. Nevertheless, the articles’ focus on the importance of moderate living, philanthropy, and giving back to the community, built Carnegie’s reputation as a benevolent immigrant success story rather than a rapacious titan of industry. And it’s true that by the time of the publication of “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie had been living by its precepts for over 20 years.

The first essay that makes up “The Gospel of Wealth” begins with Carnegie’s firm belief that the gulf between the rich and the poor is not only natural in a “survival of the fittest” kind of way, but is also a good indicator of who is willing to do the hard work and who is lazy. The modern reader can see in Carnegie’s beliefs both the 19th century’s misguided application of Darwinian evolutionary theories to economics, and the Protestant teaching that poverty is a moral failing rather than a matter of birth, luck, or opportunity.

Despite all this, Carnegie asks his readers – what should those who have excess wealth do with it? Carnegie’s answer to this question is the thesis that his essay will try to prove: the super-rich do owe some small amount of their success to the public, so maybe it’s only fair that they share some of it back.

Carnegie discusses three possible directions for massive wealth: bequeathing it to either family or the public after death, or giving it away during one’s life. Family is right out, he declares – history is full of heirs squandering fortunes on degradation, and assuming that you will somehow feel the pride of your family’s importance after your death is silly. The problem with leaving your money to the public is similar – who is to stop the trustees from spending your money in foolish ways after you’re dead? Carnegie concludes that the best thing for the rich, especially the self-made rich, to do is to use the same skills and abilities that they perfected in amassing their fortunes. Just as you worked to rise to the top, now work to maximize the benefits that your money can have for society.

So where should this excess wealth go? Since Carnegie already pointed out that the poor are destitute because of their own laziness, it makes no sense to give money directly to them. Instead, the best thing to do is to make sure to only “help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so.” This could also mean contributing to public projects that would function as “the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.”

The second article of “The Gospel of Wealth” picks up the idea of public projects and expands on it. According to Carnegie, community resources that are suitable places for the rich to dispense their wealth include universities, museums, libraries, hospitals, churches, parks, and pools. This way those poor who would fritter away actual cash charity would, instead, be lifted up by institutions created for their benefit. (The modern reader can see from this list that Carnegie practiced what he preached: from Carnegie Mellon University, to his efforts to prevent WWI through the Carnegie Foundation, to the over 5,000 community libraries that he founded, he used his wealth exactly in the ways he thought best for the public good.)

The benefit to generous donors would be the praise and adulation of the communities they give to, Carnegie argues. But at the same time, Carnegie balances this carrot with the stick of taxation, praising the idea of high taxes on the super-rich and even suggesting that it would make sense for governments to claw back a significant portion of estates after death from those who hadn’t distributed their fortunes in life.

Carnegie’s essay ends by reminding his wealthy readers of the Biblical lessons of Jesus, whose comparison between a rich man trying to get into heaven and a camel trying to get into the eye of a needle offers a sharp rebuke to those hoarding their fortunes.

Upon publication in the U.S., and subsequent re-publication in England, “The Gospel of Wealth” set off a debate, and then a backlash, as other members of his socio-economic class branded Carnegie a “radical philanthropist” who wanted to upset the social order. Particularly scandalized were those with inherited fortunes, those who argued strongly that the aristocracy was a necessary social good. Carnegie was forced to write a series of short essays explaining his firm belief in private property and capitalism in order to defend himself.

Today, Carnegie’s paternalism – his belief that poor people aren’t capable of spending money correctly – faces criticism. However, his general idea that the super-rich should spend their wealth on public works has been adopted by such billionaires as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet, who have pledged to distribute the bulk of their enormous riches on causes related to health and education.