Great Fortunes on Display, Then and Now

According to Balzac, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Often this is apparent when it is being accumulated, but time is a great disinfectant. Two or three generations of diversifying the pile, a little well-advertised philanthropy (Rockefeller giving out dimes to little newsboys) and voila, the bloody baron or robber or robber baron is a friend of the people, a patron of the arts, a role model.

In America, the great wealth was only briefly as showy as in Europe. There it was built on land, often acquired by war or crown-sanctioned theft and the income stream continued to come from agriculture performed by peons who answered to the great house erected by the sweat of ill-paid laborers’ brows.

Here, after the days of the plantation (speaking of great crimes), much of the wealth was industrial or financial so vast landed estates didn’t advertise one’s wealth so obviously. Also, since the law didn’t require the eldest son to inherit land and title at once, the money got distributed to more heirs which over time diluted it. Instead of one gigantically rich Earl of Buttleworth lots of hugely rich Waltons.

And in a country with a populist antipathy to great wealth on the hereditary aristocracy model, the inheritors of great family fortunes (with the exception of showy idiots like Paris Hilton) often learned to keep a low profile. Every once in a while you discover the fabulous vineyard is a product of inherited John Deere money or the like, but it isn’t blazoned in a coat of arms over the door of an estate the size of Rhode Island.

In Europe, war and time, changing economics and the rise of democratic socialism and the tax man have whittled down many of the hereditary fortunes. Very few of the great landed estates remain in the original hands, but a stroll through some of those still welcoming visitors, now often in he hands of the public, is instructive.

Kylemore Abbey in Connemara was built by a Victorian magnate’s son. Pere became fabulously wealthy in the cotton milling business in the 20 years prior to 1862. The date is telling. The edge he had was a low cost raw material purchased from his suppliers in the American South. That is, his cost of doing business was artifically low as a result of slave labor. It made amassing his fortune easier.

Before one puts that down to the bad old days, one might ponder all those Apple products (like the one I’m typing on, I blush to admit) which are manufactured by Foxcom. It is notorious for factories where the employees endure conditions that make 19th century sweat shops look halcyon. This allows the Silicon Valley magnates to earn gigantic profit margins and bestride the earth like nerd colossi while pretending to be friends of the common man.

Russborough House near Dublin was built by a brewer turned politician who spawned an old-fashioned titled, landed family exploiting the tenants. When the economy shifted and they fell on hard times, it was bought by a partner of Cecil Rhodes in the South African diamond business. In the colonial era when it was no longer so easy to exploit people at home, the road to riches became exploiting workers abroad.

All of which reminds us of a useful addendum to Balzac by Kurt Vonnegut. He said in America people got rich by committing crimes against which no laws had yet been passed. Such laws don’t get passed because the lawmakers are forelock-tugging lackey’s of the wealthy. They know their job is to write laws to suit the needs of their masters, not the rest of us.

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