Riches: A Christmas Essay

DECEMBER, 1905

BY EDWARD S. MARTIN

CHRISTMAS this year comes at the end of a twelvemonth in which public attention has been drawn with unusual persistence to the ardor of sundry of our fellow countrymen in the pursuit of gain. Legislators, courts, and investigating committees have taken cognizance of it. Moralists are everywhere moralizing about it. It is not the struggles of needy persons to make a living that excite remark, but the urgent efforts of people not perceptibly threatened with want to gather to themselves very considerable annual aggregations of dross. In many conspicuous instances investigations have seemed to disclose in men of most respectable standing such a lack of scruple and delicacy in money-getting as seems to betoken an over-estimation of the value of riches as compared with other precious things. Impressed by these signs of the times, the clergy rehearse “the Apostle’s affectionate and solemn warning against the haste to be rich.” A college president finds Americans confronted by a situation due to lack of moral principle, and avers that greed for gain and greed for power have blinded men to the old-time distinctions between right and wrong. A banker of national reputation declares to fellow bankers in convention that dishonesty in high places gravely threatens the future of the country, and that the restoration of the old, rigid standards of honesty and uprightness is indispensable to our defense against socialism. And the root of all this evil is the desire for riches! It is a curious yearning wholesome, like hunger, up to a certain point, but more prone than hunger to run to a dangerous excess. Undoubtedly if as a people we better understood riches, their relative value, and the limitations of their usefulness, we would be a better people than we are, and honester. Incidentally, we would be better equipped to keep Christmas in a fit spirit, for since men and money are the chief valuables on earth, a diminished solicitude about money would leave a larger share of our strength and time to be occupied by solicitude about men.

It is foolish to undervalue money, and just as foolish to overvalue it. All of us — practically all—know that one can have too little, most of us believe that it is possible to have just about enough, and some of us are growing firm in the suspicion that it is possible to have so much that it is a nuisance, and the responsibility for it and its increase a disabling burden. Fortunes that are so enormous as to make their owners a legitimate object of the commiseration of thoughtful people are rather a new thing in this country, but they have really come. Enough really is as good as too much. It sounds emotional and argumentative to say so, but it is so.

The condition of having too little money is too familiar to need exposition. The great majority of people have too little money, and would be better off and happier if they had more and spent it. The condition of having about enough offers better points for discussion. There is no arbitrary sum or income that is enough. What is enough for one person is not enough for another, and what means ease and affluence in one condition of life would mean poverty in another. What is enough depends upon the individual, his education, his aspirations, his environment, the size of his family, and the possibilities that are in him. Anthony Hope in a recent story makes one of his characters observe that there is more difference between three thousand pounds a year and nothing than there is between three thousand pounds a year and all the rest of the money in the world. A family can live a certain kind of lazy, pleasant country life in England on about three thousand pounds a year, and a fairly prudent man who wants to live that sort of life is about as well off on a sure income of that size as he would be if he had a great deal more.

Of course, standards of living vary enormously; the privilege of familiar association with certain kinds of people is expensive. There may be places you cannot live in to advantage, and people you cannot play with to advantage, for much less than fifty thousand dollars a year. If you are a fool, and have no particular standard of living of your own, and your happiness depends on having what other people have and doing what other people do, and if it is necessary to you that those other people shall be people of the first fashion, of course there is no saying how much will be enough for you. Sad to say, we are almost all a little foolish about wanting to have what our associates have, and in wanting to include among our associates pleasant, decorative people whose maintenance is expensive. But if we are only moderately foolish, and have some hard sense to fall back on, and some standards of our own, and some personal resources for our entertainment, there will be an imaginable income for each of us that will be about enough. Rich people, who are used to the refinements and material luxuries of life, command some exceedingly valuable privileges. They can marry when they get ready, live comfortably, have servants who save their time and strength, exercise hospitality, raise as many children as they find practicable or convenient, educate them in the best schools, and give them a fair start in life. They can command a certain amount of leisure, can travel, and to a cer tain extent can be their own masters. A moderate annual income varying according to the locality, will pay for all these advantageous privileges in their simpler forms. Anthony Hope’s three thousand pounds a year wall do it; easily in some places, with good management anywhere. Such an income commands for a family pretty much all the great advantages of condition that are in the market, and most of the highly desirable things can be had for a great deal less. Parents who command such an income can do everything for three or four children that is to their advantage up to the time they marry, and can even provide them with modest incomes of their own when they set up for themselves. Heads of American families, vdth not more than four children, and with incomes of fifteen thousand dollars a year, have got so nearly as much money as is good for them that they can well afford to be particular about what they do to make their incomes bigger.

But fifteen thousand dollars a year is not riches. Most of our countrymen whose efforts to be hastily rich have met with so much recent reprobation have long ago passed the fifteen thousand dollars a year point, and would deride the idea of such an income being about enough. What they plan and plot and sweat and gamble and finally squirm to acquire, is an income that bears no real relation to anything that can fairly be called a need, and an aggregation of capital that will produce such an income. There is no such thing in our day as being rich beyond the dreams of avarice. The dreams of avarice have grown since Dr. Johnson’s time; have grown enormously indeed since Dumas wote of Monte Cristo. Our contemporary idea of riches begins about where Dr. Johnson left off.

A good big fortune is an interesting phenomenon, and a very interesting factor in civilization. I should be sorry to see big fortunes go so much out of fashion that nobody would any longer care to heap one up. If nobody built palaces, and made a market for the larger sizes of diamonds and the best pictures, and navigated the sea in big yachts and the land in automobiles thirty feet long, — if nobody, so to speak, had money to throw at birds, and threw it, life would not be nearly so lively and decorative as it is. I had almost rather, if I were quit of all personal responsibility about it, that some people hogged great fortunes than that there should be none. And I had a great deal rather that a due provision of big fortunes should be acquired in fit ways by fit men. Few of us, I think, object to big fortunes per se. We do not want too great a proportion of the national wealth to get into too few hands, as has happened already, and is happening more and more. We do not want our laws, or the breach of them, to give an unfair advantage to the very rich who want to be richer, at the cost of the poor. But to fortunes legitimately won by men fit to win them, who merely levy lawful tribute on benefits conferred on the community, we have no objection at all. Such fortunes are the signs of general prosperity. We like to see them grow, and admire the spending of them in the same spirit in which we admire the lavish diffusion of sunshine. There is no objection to riches, then, provided the right men gather them in the right ways.

Who, then, are the right men, and what ways are legitimate ?

There are a good many people who are of some consequence in the world if they are rich, and of very little consequence if they are not. One cannot blame such people for trying to get rich. Riches mean so much to them! They are their only means of advertisement. They win them consideration. They put them in the way of being amused and entertained. It is a profound satisfaction to them to have money, even though they do not spend it. They may even find pleasure in giving it away. If by saving and bargaining and hard work and slnewd investment they can get together fortunes, let us wish them joy of them. Their money is capital if they do not spend it, and it is apt to do somebody some good if they do. If they hand it down to their descendants, there goes with it the power to command leisure and education and a choice of service, and possibly among the descendants there may be some who will use such powers to advantage. Accumulated money which enables lucky individuals of the rising generation to get a thorough preparation for the work of life, and which relieves some individuals altogether from the necessity of earning money, may be of vast service to a country like ours, which every day abounds more in work most necessary to be well done, — work which no man who must earn his living can do without great sacrifices.

By process of accumulation and investment a good many people of moderate ability and saving habits get lawfully rich in a humdrum way without making any stir about it. There is no fault to be found with them. The other great group of lawful fortune builders are the great leaders of industry: the great financiers, the great railroad builders, the great traders and manufacturers. With such men, after they have progressed a certain distance, money usually becomes more an incident of activity than an aim. When they have won abundant fortunes, they still go on, not because they greatly care for more money, but because things of the sort they have been doing are the only interesting things they know how to do. Their lives are permanently shaped, and they must live them out actively on the lines laid down by their past, or be laid off and rust. When they undertake new enterprises, they try to provide that they shall be profitable, not necessarily because they want more money, but because it is one of the rules of the game they play that enterprises they put hand to shall be profitable. A great commercial enterprise that does not pay is a machine that will not work. It is a failure, and there is no fun in failures.

To these born chieftains of commerce it comes natural to gel rich. They take it in their stride. The money-making habit is apt to run away with them, and concentration on one great phase of endeavor is apt to leave the remnant of atrophied powers that one sees in most specialists. The need often felt of fighting the devil with fire breeds in them a disposition to fight with fire when the opponent is not the devil. The great fortune builders are usually not absolutely nice in their methods, and some of them are rascals. Out on the rascals! but for the rest, we must judge them by the standard of bridge builders and not of watchmakers. If they are true money-makers ; if they create wealth and not merely divert it and sweat it, there is no cause to grudge them the tribute they levy.

A valuable thing in a family is one of these colossal money-makers. Time was when we used to believe the adage about its being three generations from shirtsleeves to shirt-sleeves. I do not think it was ever literally sound, for though in earlier days the accumulations of a fortune builder often ran pretty well out before his grandchildren got through with them, the third generation seldom got back to manual labor. A fortune in a family raises the standard of living and of expectation for that family, forms for it associations of worldly advantage, and teaches it a good many things that are of value. The members of a family that has once been pulled out of the ruck of humanity in that way, and kept out for a considerable time, are apt to make a hard fight to hold the place they have had. They may get back to work; they usually do; but it is apt to be a more profitable grade of work than is commonly done in shirt-sleeves.

Moreover, the great fortunes of this generation are so enormous that there is no visible prospect of shirt-sleeves for the heirs of them. Fortunes of even fifty millions will stand a great deal of foolishness in young heirs, and most of the heirs of such fortunes who come under contemporary observation are not particularly foolish about dissipating money. Some of them are shrewd and ambitious, and give more concern as money-getters than as money-spenders, and others merely find their incomes ample for such amusements and expenditures as they crave, and live within them.

So there are people who seem fit to gather riches, some because that seems as profitable a use as any to make of their time, others because riches are a natural incident of valuable services that they have had the talent and the energy to render. It is the money-getting of the unfit that makes the scandals. The money the various kinds of gamblers get is simply diverted from other holders; the money the grafters get is stolen from the people; the money made out of franchises corruptly obtained is of the same sort. The patent medicine money has a very fragile claim to respect; the money made by skinning stockholders or policy-holders is dear at the price, and so, generally, is the profit that results from the transfer of worthless articles — be they stocks, mines, patent medicine, tips, or what — for a valuable consideration. What we need to keep us straight in our money-getting enterprises is a high valuation of conduct and character as compared with riches, and a sincere appreciation that it makes more for happiness to do good work, especially if it is done for good pay, than to get hold of money without rendering a due equivalent.

We are not so universally money-mad as we may seem. The elder Agassiz was not the only man in this country who ever felt that he had not time to make money. The longing for riches is not universally a predominant passion. Thousands of men feel that money-getting is not primarily their calling, and would not leave the work they love and pay the price in time and concentrated effort if ever so good a chance was offered them of a fortune honestly won. The man in whom the money-hunger is so strong and effectual that he is willing to devote his life to satisfying it is a very exceptional man. Most of us hate to save, and the pleasure or profit of the hour looks bigger to us than that of the remote future. Moreover, to almost all the leading preachers, doctors, and schoolmasters, and to many of the editors, painters, architects, engineers, lawyers, and big politicians, money, though important, is a secondary consideration. They want to make a living, and much prefer that it shall be a good one, but professional success and reputation is of more value to them than superfluous riches. And why not! Is it not a much more satisfying thing to be a living force, master of a great profession or a great art, or a public leader, than to be merely the possessor of riches ?

The great check on the value of riches to any man is that we human creatures have only one set of time, one body, one mind, and one soul, apiece. We all, no matter what our means are, have the use of twenty-four hours, and no more, every day. About eight hours we have to sleep. How we shall invest the other sixteen is the great problem of our lives. We can only do one set of things in any given period of time. If we have a million dollars a year, we can do things that we cannot do on one thousand, or ten, or twenty thousand a year. They will be different things, but there is no assurance at all that they will be better things or more entertaining, or more useful or improving. And we cannot do both. If we put in our one set of time in a million-dollar occupation, we have to forego most of the thousand-dollar occupations. If we trail around Europe in an automobile, we cannot be at home reading books, and working at our trade or in our garden, or talking to our friends. Our good friend with a million dollars a year cannot eat much more or better food, or drink much more or better drinks, than we can. If he does, he will be sorry. He can have more places to live in, and enormously more and handsomer apparatus of living, but he cannot live in more than one place at once, and too much apparatus is a bother. He can make himself comfortable, and live healthfully. So can we. He can have all the leisure he wants, can go where he likes and stay as long as he will. He has the better of us there. We have the better of him in having the daily excitement and discipline of making a living. It is a great game, — that game of making a living, — full of chances and hazards, hopes, surprises, thrills, disappointments, and satisfactions. Our million-a-year friend misses that. We may beat him in discipline, too. We are apt to get more than he does, — the salutary discipline of steady work, of self-denial, of effort. That is enormously valuable to soul, body, and mind. He can’t buy it. We get it thrown in with our daily bread.

We are as likely to marry to our taste and live happily in the domesticated state as he is. We have rather better chances than he of raising our children well. We are as likely as he to have good friends worth having, and to find pleasure in them. Great riches tend to limit their possessors to the society of people who are rich, not because the rich love the rich better than they do other folks, but because their scale and habits of living usually take them where the rich people are, or where the poorer people cannot conveniently sojourn. If the steam-yacht people play more or less with other steamyacht people in the yachting season, it is because the steam-yacht people are there, and the other people are not. At any rate, in this country great riches seem more likely to limit their possessors’ command of agreeable society than to extend it.

Another trouble about some of our extremely rich people is that no definite job goes with their money. If they choose, they can invest everything they have in such a way as to have no responsibility about the management of any business, and nothing to do except to gather in their dividend checks and spend or reinvest their money. That is one result of incorporating all the great businesses of the country. When money necessarily went into land, the rich had duties that were incident to their possessions. They might neglect them, but they had them. Now they can easily manage so as to have no duties connected with property that an efficient clerk cannot transact. If they do so manage, it. leaves them rather lonely and unimportant, outside the great current of human hopes and activities. If they do not like that, and insist on touching elbows with their fellows, there is no way for it but to butt into the game, take chances and risks, make sacrifices of ease and leisure, and work like poor people.

Great riches, carrying with them enormous possibilities of self-indulgence, may fairly be considered as a sort of poison which ruins a certain proportion of those who are exposed to it, though strong constitutions survive. As rum destroys savages, so wealth tends to destroy persons — especially young ones — whom use and training have not gradually made immune to its effects. How that is, may readily be noticed in observing the effects of newly won wealth on the families of the winners. It is a rare man, and usually one very much blessed in his wife, who can combine with the ability that wins him riches the sagacity to train children born in comparative poverty so that they will benefit bv a rapid and radical improvement in his circumstances.

Another drawback to riches is that, the two things that most of us most dread being poverty and that spiritual ruin which we call damnation, the elimination of poverty takes away a buffer, and, leaving damnation our only great bugbear, brings the dread of it unpleasantly near. Not this drawback, though, nor fears for our children, nor any of the other objections to being rich, so fiercely daunt us but that our fortitude is easily equal to the perils of all of them if honorable affluence comes our way. It is enough if we realize that riches, whatever their charm and their value, are not a panacea for the evils of life, that happiness depends on work, health, character, disposition, training, and a great many other things besides income, and that, so far as happiness is concerned, enough money, or somewhat less than enough, puts us in just about as good a case to achieve it as though we were rich. To live our lives, to get out what is in us, to do our share of the world’s work, and live brotherly with our fellows — that is what we are here for. If riches are an incident of that course of life, they are a good incident. If the chase after them lures us away from the fulfillment of our primary obligations to our Maker, our neighbor, and ourselves, we are certainly losers by it: losers if it fails; losers not less if, succeeding, we lose the Christmas out of our year, the Christmas spirit out of our lives.