Minor Uses of the Middling Rich

by F. J. Mather, Jr.

To assert today that the rich are for the most part entirely harmless is to dare much, for the contrary opinion is greatly in favor. Such wholesale condemnation of the rich assumes a more general and a more specific form. They are said to be harmful to the body politic simply because they have more money than the average: their property has been wrongly taken from persons who have a better right to it, or is withheld from people who need it more. But aside from being constructively a moral detriment from the mere possession of wealth, the rich man may do specific harm through indulging his vices, maintaining an inordinate display, charging too much for his own services, crushing his weaker competitor, corrupting the legislature and the judiciary, finally by asserting flagrantly his right to what he erroneously deems to be his own. Such are the general and specific charges of modern anti-capitalism against wealth. Like many deep rooted convictions, these rest less on analysis of particular instances than upon axioms received without criticism. The word spoliation does yeoman service in covering with one broad blanket of prejudice the most diverse cases of wealth. But spoliation is assumed, not proved. My own conviction that most wealth is quite blameless, whether under the general or specific accusation, is based on no comprehensive axiom, but simply on the knowledge of a number of particular fortunes and of their owners. Such a road towards truth is highly unromantic. The student of particular phenomena is unable to pose as the champion of the race. But the method has the modest advantage of resting not on a priori definitions, but on inductions from actual experience; hence of being relatively scientific.

Before sketching the line of such an investigation, let me say that in logic and common sense there is no presumption against the wealthy person. Ever since civilization began and until yesterday it has been assumed that wealth was simply ability legitimately funded and transmitted. Even modern humanitarians, while dallying with the equation wealth = spoliation, have been unwilling wholly to relinquish the historic view of the case. I have always admired the courage with which Mr. Howells faced the situation in one of those charming essays for the Easy Chair of Harper’s. Driving one night in a comfortable cab he was suddenly confronted by the long drawn out misery of the midnight bread line. For a moment the vision of these hungry fellow men overcame him. He felt guilty on his cushions, and possibly entertained some St. Martin-like project of dividing his swallowtail with the nearest unfortunate. Then common sense in the form of his companion came to his rescue. She remarked “Perhaps we are right and they are wrong.” Why not? At any rate Mr. Howells was not permitted to condemn in a moment of compassion the career of thrift, industry and genius, that had led him from a printer’s case to a premier position in American letters, or, more concretely, he received a domestic dispensation to cab it home in good conscience, though many were waiting in chilly discomfort for their gift of yesterday’s bread. The why so and why not of this incident are my real subject. For Mr. Howells is merely a particularly conspicuous instance of the kind of prosperity I have in mind. We are all too much dazzled by the rare great fortunes. The newly rich have spectacular ways with them. By dint of frequently passing us in notorious circumstances, they give the impression of a throng. They are much in the papers, their steam yachts loom large on the waters, they divorce quickly and often, they buy the most egregious, old masters. By such more or less innocent ostentations, a handful stretches into a procession, much as a dozen sprightly supernumeraries will keep up an endless defile of Macduff’s army on the tragic stage. Let us admit that some of the great wealth is more or less foolishly and harmfully spent; my subject is not bank accounts, but people; and very wealthy people constitute an almost negligible minority of the race. Their influence too is much less potent than is supposed. A slightly vulgarizing tendency proceeds from them, but in waves of decreasing intensity. Their vogue is chiefly a succès de scandale. Sensible people will gape at the spectacle without admiration, and even the reader of the society column in the sensational newspapers keeps more critical detachment than he is usually credited with. In any case neither the boisterous nor the shrinking multimillionaire has any representative standing. He is not what a poor person means by a rich person. Ask your laundress who is rich in your neighborhood, and she will name all who live gently and do not have to worry about next month’s bills. True pragmatist, she sees that to be exempt from any threat of poverty is to all intents and purposes to be rich. Her classification ignores certain niceties, but corresponds roughly to the fact, and has the merit of corresponding to government decree. Rich people, since the income tax, are officially those who pay the tax but not the surtax. Families with an income not less than four thousand dollars nor more than twenty thousand comprise the harmless, middling rich. Let us once for all admit that in the surtaxed classes there are many cases of quite harmless wealth, while in the lower level of the rich, harmful wealth will sometimes be found. Such exceptions do not invalidate the general rule that all but a negligible fraction of the rich are included in the first class of income taxpayers—on from four to twenty thousand, that most of the property here held is blamelessly held in good hands—wealth that in no fair estimate can be regarded as harmful. In terms of British currency, our category of the middling rich would include the poorer individuals of the upper classes, the richer persons of the lower middle class, and the upper middle class as a whole. This comparison is made not to apply an alien class system which holds very inadequately here in America, but simply to avow the difficulty of my task of apology. The bourgeoisie is equally suspect among radicals, reactionaries, and artists. My middling rich are nothing other than what an European essayist would quite brazenly call the haute bourgeoisie. It is quite a comprehensive class, made up chiefly of professional men, moderately successful merchants, manufacturers, and bankers with their more highly paid employees, but including also many artists, and teachers of all sorts. Incidentally it is an employing and borrowing class in various degrees, hence especially subject to the exactions of the labor union at one end, and of the great capitalist and the Trust at the other.

The general harmlessness of the wealth of this class rests upon the fact that it is in small part inherited, but mostly earned by individual effort, while such effort has usually been honestly and efficiently rendered and paid for at a moderate rate. In fact the amount of capacity that can be hired for the slightest rewards is simply amazing. It is the distinction of this class as compared both with the wage earning and the capitalist class—both of which agree in overvaluing their services and extorting payment on their own terms—that it respects its work more than it regards rewards. Consider the amount of general education and special training that go to make a capable school superintendent, or college professor; a good country doctor or clergyman—and it will be felt that no money is more honestly earned. This is equally true of many lawyers and magistrates, who are wise counsellors for an entire country side. It is no less true of hosts of small manufacturers who make a superior product with conscience. For the wealth, small enough it usually is, that is thus gained in positions of especial skill and confidence, absolutely no apology need be made. I sometimes wish that the Socialists for whom any degree of wealth means spoliation, would go a day’s round with a country doctor, would take the pains to learn of the cases he treats for half his fee, for a nominal sum, or for nothing; would candidly reckon his normal fee against the long years of college, medical school and hospital, and against the service itself; would then deduct the actual expenses of the day, as represented by apparatus, motor, or horse service—I can only say that if such an investigator could in any way conceive that physician as a spoliator, because he earned twice as much as a master brick-layer or five times as much as a ditch digger—if, I say, before the actual fact, our Socialist investigator in any way grudges that day’s earnings, his mental and emotional confusion is beyond ordinary remedy. And such a physician’s earnings are merely typical of those of an entire class of devoted professional men.

We do well to remind ourselves that the great body of wealth in the country has been built up slowly and honestly by the most laborious means, and accumulated and transmitted by self-sacrificing thrift. A rich person in nine cases out of ten is merely a capable, careful, saving person, often, too, a person who conducts a difficult calling with a fine sense of personal honor and a high standard of social obligation. We are too much dazzled by the occasional apparition of the lawyer who has got rich by steering guilty clients past the legal reefs, of the surgeon who plays equally on the fears and the purses of his patients, of the sensational clergyman who has made full coinage of his charlatanism. All these types exist, and all are highly exceptional. Most rich persons are self-respecting, have given ample value received for their wealth, and have less reason to apologize for it than most poor folks have to apologize for their poverty.

Furthermore: for the maintenance of certain humdrum but necessary human virtues, we are dependent upon these middling rich. It has been frequently remarked that a lord and a working man are likely to agree, as against a bourgeois, in generosity, spontaneous fellowship, and all that goes to make sporting spirit. The right measure of these qualities makes for charm and genuine fraternity; the excess of these qualities produces an enormous amount of human waste among the wage earners and the aristocrats impartially. The great body of self-controlled, that is of reasonably socialized people, must be sought between these two extremes. In short the building up of ideals of discipline and of habits of efficiency and of good manners and of human respect is very largely the task of the middle classes. Whereas the breaking down of such ideals is, in the present posture of society, the avowed or unavowed intention of a considerable portion of laboring men and aristocrats. The scornful retort of the Socialist is at hand: “Of course the middle classes are shrewd enough to practice the virtues that pay.” Into this familiar moral bog that there are as many kinds of morality as there are economic conditions of mankind, I do not consent to plunge. I need only say that the so-called middle class virtues would pay a workman or a lord quite as well as they do a bourgeois. Moreover, while workmen and lords are prone to scorn the calculating virtues of the middle classes, there is no indication that the bourgeoisie has selfishly tried to keep its virtues to itself. On the contrary there is positive rejoicing in the middle classes over a workman who deigns to keep a contract, and an aristocrat who perceives the duty of paying a debt. In fine we of the middle classes need no more be ashamed of our highly unpicturesque virtues than we are of our inconspicuous wealth.

So far from being in danger of suppression, we middling rich people are likely to last longer than the capitalists who exploit us in practice, and the workmen who exploit us on principle. Theoretically, and perhaps practically, the very rich are in danger of expropriation. Theoretically the course of invention may limit or almost abolish all but the higher grades of labor. The need of the more skilful sort of service in the professions, in manufacture, in agency of all sorts, is sure to persist. The socialists expect to get such service for much less than it at present brings, that is to make us poor and yet keep us working. Such a scheme must break down, not through the refusal of the middling rich to keep at work;—for I think there is loyalty enough to the work itself to keep most necessary activities going after a fashion, even under the most untoward conditions;—but because to make us poor is to destroy the conditions under which we can efficiently render a somewhat exceptional service. Our wealth is not an extraneous thing that can be readily added or taken away. It is our possibility of self-education and of professional improvement, it is the medium in which we can work, it is our hope of children. To take away our wealth is to maim us. There is nothing humiliating in such an avowal. It is merely an assertion of the integrity of one’s life and work. As a matter of fact no class is so well fitted to face the threat of a proletarian revolution as we harmless rich. It is the class that produces generals, explorers, inventors, statesmen. A social revolution with its stern attendant regimentation would bear most heavily on the relatively undisciplined class of working people. The disciplined class of the middling rich is better prepared to meet such an eventuality. Accordingly it is no mere selfishness or complacency that leads the middling rich to oppose the pretensions of proletarianism on one side and of capitalism on the other. It is rather the assertion of sound middle class morality against two opposite yet somewhat allied forms of social immorality—the strength that exaggerates its claims, and the weakness that claims all the privileges of strength.

We are useful too as conserving certain valuable ideas. When I mention the idea of the right of private property, I expect to be laughed at by a large class of enthusiasts. Yet all of civilization has been built up on the distinction between meum and tuum. Without this idea there is not the slightest inducement to persistent individual effort nor possibility of progress for the individual or for the race. The fruitful diversities, the germinative inequalities between men all depend on this right. And today the right to one’s own is doubly under attack from the violence of laboring men, and the guile of those in positions of financial trust. The strikers who offer as an argument the burning of a mine or wrecking of a mill, and the directors who manipulate corporation accounts to pay unearned dividends, are both undermining the right of property. Against such counsels of force and fraud, the representatives of the common sense and funded wisdom of mankind are the middling rich. It is an unromantic service—doubtless breaking other people’s windows or scaling their bank accounts is much more thrilling—it is a public service obviously tinged with self-interest, but none the less a public service of high and timely importance. The business of keeping the sanity of the world intact as against the wilder expressions of social discontent, and the uglier expressions of personal envy and greed, may seem to lack zest and originality today. History may well take a different view of the matter. It would not be surprising to find a posthumous aureole of idealism conferred upon those who amid the trumpeting of money market messiahs, and the braying of self-appointed remodellers of the race, simply stood quietly on their own inherited rights and principles.

Such are some not wholly minor uses for the middling rich. Should they be abolished, many of the pleasanter facts and appearances of the world would disappear with them. The other day I whisked in one of their motor cars through miles of green Philadelphia suburbs dappled with pink magnolia trees and white fruit blossoms—everywhere charming houses, velvety lawns, tidy gardens. The establishing of a little paradise like that is of course a selfish enterprise—a mere meeting of the push and foresight of real estate operators with the thrift and sentiment of householders, yet it is an advantage inevitably shared, a benefit to the entire community, an example in reasonable working, living, and playing.

On the side of play we should especially miss these harmless rich. The sleek horses on a thousand bridle paths and meadows are theirs, the smaller winged craft that still protest against the pollution of the sea by the reek of coal and the stench of gasoline; of their furnishing are the graceful and widely shared spectacles not only of the minor yacht racing but of the field sports generally. They constitute our militia. The survival in the world of such gentler accomplishments as fencing, canoeing, and exploration rests with the middling rich. They write our books and plays, compose our music, paint our pictures, carve our statues. The pleasanter unconscious pageantry of our life is conducted by their sons and daughters. To be nice, to indulge in nice occupations, to express happiness—this is not even today a reproach to any one. Indeed if any approach to the dreamed socialized state ever be made, it will come less through regimentation than through imitation of those persons of middle condition who have managed to be reasonably faithful in their duties, and moderate in their pleasures. To keep a clean mind in a clean body is the prerogative of no class, but the lapses from this standard are unquestionably more frequent among the poor and the very rich.

It is instructive in this regard to compare with the newspapers that serve the middling rich, those that address the poor, and those that are owned in the interest of well understood capitalistic interests. The extremes of yellow journalism and of avowedly capitalistic journalism, meet in a preference for salacious or merely shocking news, and in a predilection for blatant, sophistical, or merely nugatory and time-serving editorial expressions. Between the two really allied types of newspapers are a few which exercise a decent censorship over questionable news, and habitually indulge in the luxury of sincere editorial opinion. There are some exceptions to the rule. In our own day we have seen a proletarian paper become a magnificent editorial organ, while somewhat illogically maintaining a random and sensational policy in its news columns. But generally the distinction is unmistakable. Imagine the plight of New York journalism if four papers, which I need not mention, ceased publication. It would mean a distinct and immediate cheapening of the mentality of the city. Then observe on any train who are reading these papers. It is plain enough what class among us makes decent journalism possible.

Much is to be said for the abolition of poverty, and something for the reduction of inordinate wealth. Poverty is being much reduced, and will be farther, the process being limited simply by the degree to which the poor will educate and discipline themselves. We shall never wholly do away with bad luck, bad inheritance, wild blood, laziness, and incapacity: so some poverty we shall always have, but much less than now, and less dire. The fact that the large class of middling rich has been evolved from a world where all began poor, is a promise of a future society where poverty shall be the exception. But such increase of the wealth of the world, and of the number of the virtually rich, will never be attained by the puerile method of expropriating the present holders of wealth. That would produce more poor people beyond doubt—but its effect in enriching the present poor would be inappreciable. You cannot change a man’s character and capacity simply by giving him the wealth of another. In wholesale expropriations and bequests the experiment has been many times tried, and always with the same results. The wealth that could not be assimilated and administered has always left the receiver or grasper in all essentials poorer than he was before. Wealth is an attribute of personality. It is not interchangeable like the parts of a standardized machine. The futility of dispossessing the middling rich would be as marked as its immorality.

This essentially personal character of wealth must affect the views of those who would attack what are called the inordinate fortunes. I hold no brief for or against the multi-millionaire. In many cases I believe his wealth is as personal, assimilated and legitimate as is the average moderate fortune. In many cases too, I know that such gigantic wealth is in fact the product of unfair craft and favoritism, is to that extent unassimilated and illegitimate. Yet admitting the worst of great fortunes, I think a prudent and fair minded man would hesitate before a general programme of expropriation. He would consider that in many cases the common weal needs such services as very wealthy people render, he would reflect on the practical benefits to the world, of the benevolent enterprises for education, research, invention, hygiene, medicine, which are founded and supported by great wealth. In our time The Rockefeller Institute will have stamped out that slow plague of the south, the hook worm. To the obvious retort that the government ought to do this sort of thing, the reply is equally obvious, that historically governments have not done this sort of thing until enlightened private enterprise has shown the way. Our prudent observer of mankind in general, and of the very rich in particular, would again reflect that, granting much of the socialist indictment of capital as illgained, common sense requires a statute of limitations. At a certain point restitution makes more trouble than the possession of illegitimate wealth. Debts, interest, and grudges cannot be indefinitely accumulated and extended. It is the entire disregard of this simple and generally admitted principle that has marred the socialist propaganda from the first. From the point of view of fomenting hatred between classes, to make every workingman regard himself as the residuary legatee of all the grievances of all workingmen, at all times, may be clever tactics, it is not a good way of making the workingman see clearly what his actual grievance and expectancy of redress are in his own day and time.

With increasingly heavy income and inheritance taxes, the very rich will have to reckon. Yet the multi-millionaire’s evident utility as the milch cow of the state, will cause statesmen, even of the anti-capitalistic stamp, to waver at the point where the cow threatens to dry up from over-milking. If the case, then, for utterly despoiling the harmful rich, is by no means clear, the prospect for the harmless rich may be regarded as fairly favorable. For the moment, caught between the headiness of working folk, the din of doctrinaires, and the wiles of corporate activity, the lot of the middling rich is not the most happy imaginable. But they seem better able to weather these flurries than the windy, cloud-compelling divinities of the hour. From the survival of the middling rich, the future common weal will be none the worse, and it may even be better.