I was walking through Tower Grove Park recently, and reflecting on how it came to be. Like the Missouri Botanical Garden that is adjacent to it, Henry Shaw carved the park out of his huge estate just outside Saint Louis. He donated it to the city, which created the foundation that still runs the park. It is a huge piece of urban landscape, similar to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York City.
We often compare the late 19th century to the early 21st century in that there was a similar disparity between the wealthiest Americans and the working people in the United States that exists today. We called those wealthiest Americans "robber barons," and Republicans and Democrats alike banded together to pass legislation to bust trusts, establish unions and curb the financial excesses of the "Gilded Age."
But there are significant differences between those two periods in time.
One of the most significant is that the robber barons had a clear, fixed sight on what it means to be part of the community. Andrew Carnegie endowed a university, along with his financier, Andrew Mellon, and then, not considering that enough, gave dozens of cities throughout the United States the means to erect a public library and stock it with books over which Carnegie exercised no censorship. The great public spaces of New York and Chicago, Shaw's garden and park—all of these were funded, not by taxes, but by philanthropic gifts from the wealthiest Americans back to the community. Community was important, even to the 19th century's "one percent."
Unfortunately, although the amount of wealth is greater now than then, the wealthiest Americans appear to give less consideration to the idea of community in the United States. The 100 wealthiest Americans saw their wealth increase over 13% in 2011, yet overall, charitable donations and gifts to public works are down. The wealthiest Americans hide their wealth in offshore bank accounts instead of funding communitarian public works. They party like the Gilded Age, but unlike their forebears, most don't establish universities or fund a prize for the advancement of research and of peace.
From the beginning, our Founding Fathers knew there was a dialectic between individualism and communitarianism. This dialectic drove over a half million men to give their lives to set black slaves free.
Individuals, in the Ayn Rand sense, would never have flocked to the Union's colors, but communitarians understood that what benefits the poorest segment of the population benefits us all. In manufacturing, there were supporters of unions among the "one percent." In fact, the Republican Party platform on which Teddy Roosevelt ran emphasized the party's support for unions.
Service to the community was, up until the 1960s, a shibboleth in the body politic, but not so much now.
Sure, there was a lot of pure greed then too. In the mines, in the garment industry, in the auto industry, men and women died because of greed and people who just didn't care about the common good. Yet at the same time, you look around and see the magnificent public buildings, from the Ravinia concert venue to the Chicago Public Library, to many more ways the robber barons gave back generously to the land that made them wealthy.
I don't see that happening as much as today. I see more Ebenezer Scrooge than I do Leland Stanford or Andrew Carnegie. Don't you wish that today's "one percent" were as community-inspired as their financial ancestors were? Wouldn't it be nice if the concept of service, of "giving back," was once again a core value for all of us?