The Rich and How They Got That Way

By Cynthia Crossen

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Yes, they have more money.” Ernest Hemingway

Are the very rich so very different? Are they the victors in an economic battle of survival of the fittest, or the lucky recipients of a windfall of wealth? Are their much talked-about lifestyles of privilege and conspicuous consumption the real deal, or just a collection of middle class fantasies? Should they be condemned as exploiters, or revered as embodiments of all that our society values the most?

The Rich looks at questions like these in a biographical overview of the past millennium of affluence. Beginning with the Machmud of Ghazni in the tenth century and ending with – who else? – William Henry Gates III, Cynthia Crossen describes how ten people managed to become very rich. In doing so, she also provides a quick history of economic change. From a nomad warlord to the first captain of industry, an oriental despot to an African chief, she examines the many different ways wealth has been acquired through the ages, and the different personalities that have made this their goal.

It is light reading, without any really profound analysis of the issues, but still manages to be provocative. The evolution of what it means to be rich is an interesting sociological inquiry into what H. G. Wells considered to be the true “ecology of the human species.”

What are Crossen’s conclusions? After completing her survey of some of history’s wealthiest people, what can she finally tell us about who the rich are? Are there any universals to the acquisition of enormous wealth?

The short answer to that is that each blueprint for wealth is unique. The one principle Crossen does give precedence to is that wealth begets wealth. “The most reliable prediction of a person’s eventual wealth today is the same as it has always been: ‘The best way to make money . . . [is] to have some to start with.’”

To some extent this is true. Of the four hundred wealthiest Americans named by Forbes magazine in 1989, 40 percent had inherited their way to richness. With the advent of the “new” digital economy we may see a blip in this pattern, but the rule that wealth begets wealth will almost certainly re-assert itself. Microsoft has made a lot of people rich, but just wait until we get to the next generation.

As a predictor, however, wealth begets wealth only takes us so far. What about the other 60 per cent of 1989’s top dogs? At the risk of sounding simplistic I would say the real recipe for getting rich has only two ingredients: luck and greed.

It is possible to get very rich on luck alone. You can win a lottery or inherit a great estate. The very word “fortune” has connotations that suggest the role of fate. Could John D. Rockefeller ever have imagined the invention of the internal combustion engine? No, yet it was what made his empire. If Bill Gates had been born only five years later, would he have been able to build a monopoly out of his operating systems? Highly unlikely. The one expression that comes up again and again when talking about the rich – that they were in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time – is probably the best expression yet of the formula for success.

But while every rich person has to have at least a bit of luck in order to succeed, some of them also work very hard for the money. They are driven. For Crossen this X-factor is described by the term “attitude”, a combination of personal qualities, both positive and negative, useful in the pursuit of riches. But this is missing the obvious point. Creativity, selfishness, intelligence, ruthlessness, vision, ambition – none of this made anyone rich unless getting rich was, at least to some extent, what they wanted. The moral status of greed may be hard to locate, but good, bad or neutral it is still a basic prerequisite for getting in the club.

“Naming the richest man in history,” Crossen writes, “is an amusing but hopeless exercise.” As the nature, or at least the way, of counting wealth has changed, it is increasingly difficult to draw comparisons. “How do Genghis Khan’s five million square miles of land compare with Bill Gates’s stock in Microsoft?” How does political power translate into dollars and cents? And finally, once you have hit the upper limits of consumption, what difference does any of it make?

The slogan for Lotto 6/49 is “Imagine the freedom.” Freedom, power, happiness – perhaps these really are things money can buy. We may imagine being rich not only as a release from our social position, but as an escape from the human condition as well. In that case it is a dream that has never been realized. But it is why the idea of wealth, of being rich, continues to fascinate.

Review first published August 26, 2000.


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