Capitalism, O’Leary style

By: Stephen Chartrand- Specialty News Editor

On Jan. 28, Canada’s public face of business and entrepreneurship, Kevin O’Leary, had this to say on the “The Lang and O’Leary Exchange,” a business talk show.

The comment was in regard to Oxfam’s recently published report that the world’s richest 85 people have more wealth concentrated in their hands than the 3.5 billion poorest people of the world:

“It’s fantastic and this is a great thing because it inspires everybody, gets them motivation to look up to the one percent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people, I’m going to fight hard to get up to the top,’” he said. “This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this?”

Starring back at Mr. O’Leary with a cold, unsympathetic look of resignation to his unexpectedly gleeful approval of the report, his co-host, Amanda Lang, had to take a moment to digest this. “Really?” she said. “So, someone living on a dollar a day in Africa is getting up in the morning and saying, ‘I’m going to be Bill Gates’?”

While Mr. O’Leary is right that wealth redistribution is not the answer to the massive increases in income inequality between the wealthy and the poor over the last thirty or forty years, it is sentiments like these that make one wonder if the wealthy and the extremely rich no longer feel a sense of social obligation inherent to the wealth they’ve accumulated. While billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who in 2010 created the “Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge” urging the worlds billionaires to pledge at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes and charity, there is a difference, however, between a pledge and a social conscience.

I am referring of course to Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 article on “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which Carnegie argues it is a moral duty of those who have amassed great fortunes to use their wealth for the benefit of society. For Mr. O’Leary, however, wealth is not a resource for the benefit of those who have none or for the enrichment of society as a whole, its merely an example for the poor to imitate.

What Carnegie argued for in that essay was that with such wealth comes a social conscience. As Carnegie says, “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”

In his article, Carnegie proposed that the rich should redistribute theirsurplus wealth and firmly believed that because of their talents, their expertise, intelligence, and skills at administering money, the rich could put their fortunes to use through charitable causes and produce the greatest net benefit for society as a whole. Carnegie also urged that wealth should not be spent unscrupulously and wastefully.

In a memo Carnegie wrote to himself, he said: “There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself.” I think Mr. O’Leary and people of similar stature need to revisit this now ancient and bygone wisdom.

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