Can the rich buy our love?
That's the question at the heart of Robert F. Dalzell Jr.'s "The Good Rich and What They Cost Us,'' which offers a useful historical perspective on wealth and philanthropy.
Dalzell presents portraits of earlier Americans who got rich, made people mad along the way and tried to restore themselves to the public's graces through good works. Modern concerns - about taxation, crony capitalism and social entrepreneurship, to name just three - echo throughout.
Each of Dalzell's protagonists was in some way morally compromised. The Puritan merchant Robert Keayne overcharged for nails, a precious commodity in the Boston of his day. Allowing for inflation, George Washington was the richest president ever, yet his wealth was built on the backs of slaves.
The Lawrence brothers, a pair of New England textile makers, depended on cotton picked by Southern slaves and on increasingly harsh conditions in Northern mills. John D. Rockefeller earned a reputation for utter ruthlessness in assembling his Standard Oil empire.
Unfortunately, Dalzell never fully engages with the questions at the heart of his book. There is no evidence presented on whether having a class of mostly self-made plutocrats results in a net benefit to society, perhaps through innovation or faster economic growth.
Nor does he grapple with whether we would be better off if the functions performed by philanthropy were filled by the state (which underwrites them, to some extent, through the tax deductibility of charitable gifts).
Yet the book is valuable, if only for the historical context it provides. The author's leanings aren't hard to detect - he has real concerns about inequality, and doubts about the compensating value of philanthropy. So should the rest of us. Thanks to Dalzell, our thinking on the subject at least will be enriched by history.