From History News Network comes this fascinating look by Edward Renehan at the culture of philanthropy in the time of Cornelius Vanderbilt. As we have Think Tanks, so in his day the strikingly named London Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor promoted the belief that giving to the poor was generally bad because it encourages vice and indolence. In America the same analysis was made by The Society for the Prevention of Pauperism: The poor are mostly undeserving and are best served or contained in workhouses and debtor prisons. The strong survive, the weak perish, and the race is purified of its weak beings and its cultures of failure. The article shows how this strain of Social Darwinism influenced Vanderbilt and others, reducing or squelching their commitment to giving to the poor. And, the article traces the "tough love" philosophy down to Ayn Rand and our contemporary conservative thinkers.
When, at Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, Bill Schambra calls for less welfare for the poor and more help from private philanthropy, one can only wonder. Once welfare is dismantled, and the tax breaks given, will wealthy conservatives step up their giving to the poor? Or, will the arguments and alibis used to make welfare seem a corrupting influence on the poor be recycled and returned to their earlier context, becoming once again a critique of charitable giving to the undeserving poor? Will the rich man who disdains having his tax money go to the indigent, step in to give his money through a nonprofit intermediary, or will he simply walk off, his heart hardened, and his conscience clear, to spend the money on his own deserving self and his own deserving heirs? Sadly, that is mostly what Cornelius Vanderbilt did. His heir, though, the one to whom he gave almost all his fortune, did little to preserve it, and the family, once (in inflation adjusted terms) three times richer than Bill Gates, has seen its dynasty crumble. Several of the heirs, it seems, contested the patriarch's will, accusing him of being insane. The case dragged on; the chosen son, the one who was to inherit almost all, committed suicide.
In the dialogue of Virtue and Wealth, Dame Fortune may have the final word. Had Vanderbilt listened to the Christ of the Gospels, or to Maimonides with his ladder of giving (or justice), or to the Stoics who counsel detachment from worldly passion, rather than listening to the think tanks of his era, might Vanderbilt's family have been better and done better, not only for society, but for themselves? Unwisdom, selfishness, and sophistry are like vipers we breed in our hearts at our own peril.