Watching the Oscars in light of the controversy over racial inequality reminded me of the difference between how society views privilege today compared to in the past. There was a time when, for many at least, privilege meant a life of service. Many of the wealthy who built this country had a code of honor that seems unimaginable today.
If you doubt me, read this fascinating passage from the autobiography of a preeminent historian of the 20th century, John Lukacs:
In our day, we often associate wealth with advantage or flamboyance, but rarely with service. The renewal of this ideal is among the most important social changes that we could encourage. As the world grows more unequal economically, the decency and largesse of the privileged is both morally and socially vital.
The rich are undertaking new philanthropic initiatives, and in general there seems to be a growing philanthropic ethos. But the underlying philosophy of wealth used to be that it was a God-given benefit and had to be used for honorable purposes. After all, even the self-made success relies upon the infrastructure of society, the help of others and innate talents to succeed. No one makes it alone—as Mark Twain said: The self made man is as likely as the self-laid egg.
If we can keep the recognition that the Astors and the Guggenheims had—that wealth is a call to give—that success is expressed in service, and that we all owe each other a chance to have a chance, then perhaps despite the storms, we can save the ship.