The controversy over the disparity between the rich and the rest of us has hit the covers of two emblematic fountains of ideas; The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly. The mention of a risk to society of "an entrenched plutocracy," brought that almost archaic word back to me. I had used it on the front-piece of my best-selling biography of J. Paul Getty, The Great Getty nearly a quarter-century ago.
I quoted the caustic critic H.L Mencken, who wrote:
The plutocracy, in a democratic state, tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it.. It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential character of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, courage -- above all, courage. It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal... Its main character is its incurable timorousness; it is forever grasping at straws held out by demagogues... its dreams are of banshees, hobgloblins, bugaboos.
Applied to Getty, who imagined he was the reincarnation of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and who admired Hitler as a kind of 20th century Hadrian, Mencken was partially right on.
Today, though, when I think of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates rounding up billionaires to give away half their fortunes; when I see Frank Giustra, along with Carlos Slim committing to improving the life of the poor in mining nations like Peru and Colombia; when I read about hedge-fund maven adopting schools; or Zuckerberg giving $100 million to Newark, I reckon we have come a very long way since Mencken wrote that cutting description of the moguls.
He wasn't describing Carnegie or Rockefeller or Rosenwald, either, who understood instinctively that theirv wealth was meant to be used in making society better for the rest of us.
In the meantime, I'm waiting to see if and how the plutocrats of Russia will change their image as oligarchs -- which is not very democratic, is it? Or what role the gazillionaires of China and India and the rest of the Asian subcontinent will play with regard to the rulers and the billions of ruled.
Let's hope we're going to get a new 21st century meaning of plutocracy. And that the New Elite will be concerned with more than hopping on their private jets to move from castle to castle to yacht, pushing up the prices of art and trying to emulate the Roman Emperors, the 18th century French nobility or the Russian Tsars.
More Warren Buffett wannabees, please.