The poor wealthy

While I seldom approve the cheap argumentative tactic of guilt by association, it has its uses. Like circumstantial evidence, there are stronger and weaker forms. If you are Goering, I should think guilt by association with Hitler a reasonable charge. But if you are just a small-town politician who kisses babies, as Hitler is known to have kissed the little Aryan tots, and dawdled them about for the cameras, I would hold fire for a moment or two. The comparison might prove inapt, in other respects of behaviour.

Weaker yet is innocence by non-association; so weak that it is usually kept to oneself. Like a Pharisee, I congratulate myself for not being among the mass murderers of history; for never having carried out a bank heist; for not having tortured even one kitten; for having thrown no grenadoes into crowded places, and shot none of the people I dislike; notwithstanding temptation. I consider myself better than many I could name who have done such things, with whom I have been in no way associated. But now that I am arranging my file for the canonical process, I see that it is thin. For what have I done on the side of charity?

The reverse of this is more formidably damning. One discovers that one has performed some shameful act, or adopted some reprehensible opinion, in common with a notoriously Bad Person. The realization may, to a man of moral sensibility, occasion some brief thrill of remorse. Why am I kissing this baby? — he might ask. Or, do I really share a worldview with Attila the Hun?

Little Deng Hsiao-ping, chief commissar of Red China, so paramount a leader that he didn’t need a title — father of communist capitalism; butcher of Tiananmen Square — famously averred that, “It is good to be rich.”

Now, Deng has been praised, even privately in China, for having been not as bad as Mao Tse-tung. That is to say, his arm was dipped in blood only to the wrist, not past the elbow. (Mere thousands; not thirty million and up.) By my own standards for sanctity, however, he left much to be desired. By a more worldly standard, one might commend him for living to the age of ninety-two, in an environment that did not foster longevity. (Is it good to be old?) I will allow myself a sneaking regard for people who, though evil in themselves, impede the odd horrible crime, whatever their motives. For here, the Catholic doctrine must be, that in a time and place where things have gone downhill, and are yet going, it is good to prevent the worst from happening.

Still, he was a monster — anyone who rose to the top of that system had to be. And so, the prescriptions for good and bad, in what we might fancifully call the Book of Deng, are to be taken with a grain of salt, and perhaps a vat of some powerful cologne. If the man says, “It is good to be rich,” my instinct is to say the opposite.

The remark is too vague, to be examined logically. Good for whom? In the poetry of classical Chinese, the point could be left open. Good, arguably, for those who get to eat thanks to Chinese Communist trickle-down economics. Good, potentially, if the wealth is employed in a genuinely philanthropic spirit (remembering that most formally philanthropic acts are morally and aesthetically disgusting). But good for the owner of the wealth? And if so, good in what sense?

If the purpose of life were sensual indulgence, as a man like Deng might be compelled to uphold, it is not necessarily better to be rich. For even the narrowly sensual have capacities for enjoyment quite separable from wealth; and water to the desert trekker might taste better than the finest wine to him who lives in bloat. Thus even in the shallowest analysis, “good to be rich” is too shallow.

Great wealth is a great weight, moreover. It must be carried every hour of every day, and worried about while sleeping. Those who envy the very rich may value it more than the rich themselves.

I see, for instance, from some little media item, that two in three Ontario lottery winners are utterly destitute within five years; and I should think a larger proportion are ruined by such “good fortune.” Their lives become a shambles as their expectations of pleasure constantly outstrip the pleasure itself. (Surely Casanova was afflicted by the thought, okay, one more, but just for the record.) Having had no apprenticeship in the management of wealth — in all of its material and spiritual aspects — they go in over their heads. They would have been wiser to keep just enough to quit their miserable dayjobs, and give the excess away.

But here I will segue to the 6th Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, among the richest men alive. Or rather, was, until yesterday, when — at approximately my age, I noticed — he was “suddenly taken ill” at his Lancashire estate, and soon thereafter, pronounced dead. In this extremity he may or may not have had a moment to reflect, that his money was no use to him any more. Upon young Hugh Grosvenor, his only son, the mantle now falls. May he bear it lightly.

The wealth of the Grosvenor family originates in the clever ancestor who bought a few hundred acres of swamp and pasture, under what later became Mayfair and Belgravia. Or rather it was the Davies family who did that, but Sir Thomas Grosvenor who, in 1677, cleverly married in. A lot of other property was acquired over the years, across England and around the world; and various difficulties were astutely overcome, so that today the family business is worth, say, ten billion pounds.

It should be mentioned that, over the generations, the family did not merely sit in their pastures. They were property developers, of great energy; they built up a financing and investment consortium of considerable expertise. That they could survive e.g. the death duties and other tax piracies of viciously socialist governments through the last century, is to the credit of more than one canny Grosvenor.

For wealth, you see, has to be managed. Or else, as the lottery winners discover, it fritters away. And the management of wealth can be oppressively boring. To me, at least, having to spend much of one’s day in the company of bankers, corporate lawyers, and finical estate managers, would be an insupportable ordeal. (Well, maybe the odd spot of litigation would be fun.) Castles are nice, I will admit, but more to visit than to live in; for any castle beyond a somewhat rambling farm-house is the devil to maintain. (As a North American, I dislike having to deal with servants.) For the rest, who needs it?

They are the commercial properties that bring in the lolly. And those, to be successful, must be dull, dull, dull.

Pass me just one of those billions, and I’d be interviewing architects for unrelated projects, such as monasteries and cathedrals, and the strangest imaginable hospices and hospitals for the undeserving, transient poor. Or finding priests to mount wild missionary endeavours in exotic and dangerous lands (such as Canada). Or collecting libraries and Alexandrian museums to seat in remote and picturesque places. Within half a decade, at most, I would have blown the wad, and run short of cash for the endowments.

And meanwhile, my Presbyterian ancestors would be spinning even quicker in their graves, drilling long tunnels through the Gaelic mountains, and chambers deep beneath the turbid Atlantic Sea.

Everything I know about the late Duke of Westminster (not very much) suggests that he was, all round, what the British call a good egg. I suppose that I prefer those to addled ones. He did his best for various unobjectionable causes, not all of them ostentatious. Prince Charles will apparently attest that he was a loyal and reliable friend. I gather that he was an enthusiastic sportsman, and joyful participant in other merry games. We will see about Hugh in due course.

I have no objection to people of great wealth, until they start spending it on something ugly, as alas our post-modern Mansa Musas are likely to do. Nor do I pity them, as I might pity some of my neighbours in Parkdale, here. But speaking, as ever, only for myself, let me say that the possessor of a huge fortune has a life that strikes me as harder than mine, gentle reader.