Thursday, August 6, 2009


Written in 1889, Carnegie’s essay was immediately influential and still remains among the most quoted of his writings. The very imprimatur of the word "Gospel," which literally translates to "Good News," but which lingers in the imagination as akin to the words of God, was a bold and effective stroke lending considerable weight to his thoughts.

His essential message is that with the evolution of civilization comes the inevitable condition of some possessing great wealth and others possessing very little. Instead of condemning this situation (as did the Communists whom Carnegie reviled), he tells us that we should be delighted because it indicates the forward thrust of civilization. As he says, the Sioux had no wealthy magnates and thus their civilization is primitive. Now that civilization has progressed, we have barons of industry.

His recommendation to the wealthy is that they dispose of their wealth before they die. That wealth, he says, they hold in trust for the community. It’s nice to leave that money to others when the wealthy die, but it’s vastly better to administer it while living. That way the money gets spent doing the most good for the most people. Besides, the wealthy magnate knows best how to spend the money; the public would waste it.

One thorny point he makes is that great industrialists held down the wages of their workers on the grounds that the extra money they might have made would have been spent on gewgaws that would not have benefitted society. Whereas, Carnegie, who was passionate about keeping wages low, used all that extra money to build 2500 libraries across the country. A much better way to benefit the community. Carnegie tried to convince his readers that he knew how to satisfy the needs of the public much better than did the public.

As unpleasant as this may sound to some people, an argument could be made in his favor by examining the circumstances of the last three decades. American wealth was spent mostly not by people like Bill Gates, but by the average middle and upper-middle class citizen. That money was spent on big TVs, CDs, GameBoys, iPods, and thousands of other cheap products aimed at entertaining individuals. Nothing wrong with that, but it would have made Carnegie seem prophetic. What have the spending habits of average citizens accomplished for the community that compares with Carnegie’s libraries? And where, today, are the people who Carnegie expected to be reading in those libraries? Where are the readers at all? And where is the wealth of the nation?