How should a rich man dispose of his wealth?
By Henry R Hinckley
We do not need any discussion of a definition of wealth. A volume of political economy would easily be written there upon. What we mean I take it is, what should a man who has more than sufficient for his personal need, do with the surplus. A man who has been spending at the rate of $500 a year and has $700 is a rich man. A man who has been spending $50,000 a year and has only $30,000 is a poor man.
To the average middle-class American with an income from $2000-$5000 a year either of these extremes is a little startling. The one seems abject poverty and the other boundless wealth. It would require a great deal of study in planning and long experience to have him adapt himself to either condition. But we know that there are many individuals of both the $500 and the $50,000 class whose condition Is perfectly natural, whose income and outgo are so adjusted that they consider themselves comfortable and no more. The $50,000 man is as likely to be pinched exceeding his income as the other. Now in the question before us it is manifestly impracticable to lay down hard and fast rule for the guidance of any class. Much more a rule that will be applicable to all classes. What humbles man most in laying down a rule of conduct for himself is a defective mutual perspective. Because a thing is right and true it does not follow the converse is wrong and false. Everything is relative and must be seen at the proper focus and form the proper view point to be correctly judged. And unfortunately we are all so afflicted with mutual astigmatism or myopia that we can never feel sure that however clear a course of conduct may appear today, that it will not appear to us quite differently on some future day. There is a subjective and an objective way of looking at the duty of giving. A man may give from the best of motives and give very foolishly. The promptings of a kind heart, the mistaken sense of duty often lead men to do a vast deal of mischief. The giver may be benefitted thereby in his own character and the all wise judge may forgive him his mistakes for the motive’s sake. But if the universe is to be governed by law, the mischief will work itself out notwithstanding the good motive. If a mother give her child a deadly poison when intending to administer a healing drug the child dies just the same. It is important therefore that although one should examine his heart and see that his motives are right, he should not let his feelings run away with his judgement. If the object of giving be to do good, a man should keep that object in view when he gives, and consider whether he is adapting the means to the end. Whether the gift when made is likely to be a benefit or an encumbrance to the people he wishes to aid. To give a million dollars to found another woman’s college in the city of Northampton would strike us all as unwise charity. The donor’s motives might be benevolent. The fund donated might be the accumulation of a life of honorable industry; but the fact there is no call for it and that it would necessarily be adverse to the interests of an institution already established for the same purpose, would make it to say the least a very doubtful blessing. On the other hand a man might donate a like amount which he had acquired by dishonest means, to glorify himself, to make political capital or merely to spite his realities to found an industrial school in some manufacturing center where it is sorely needed and do a vast deal of good. The subjective part of it or the man’s motives affects himself alone. If he seeks fame and notoriety on earth by giving he will be very apt to get what he pays for. If he thinks he is laying up treasures for himself in Heaven thereby; I leave it to the theologians to decide how he will come out. If in singleness of heart, he gives as the steward of God’s bounty, he can afford to leave himself and motives and the criticisms of other people out of the question and devote himself to a calm study of the condition of himself, his fellow man around him and of the world a large, and give where his sober judgment tells him he can do more good. Everyman’s judgment and conscience will indicate a different channel for benevolence; but there are certain principles which should govern all.
First. A man has no right to neglect himself. Asceticism is a sham virtue. If a man is born to wealth he should strive to keep it and make a good use of it, and not shirk his responsibilities by giving it all away. God made him the steward and not other people. There can be no equality save in the very lowest social stratum. It is not necessary in that respect to make worldly success the goal of existence. The soldier who is ardent to go on picket in a malarious swamp does not hesitate on the score of health; or if ardent to charge a battery on the score of danger. Yet it is the duty of the soldier as much as any man as a general rule to observe sanitary laws and to run no foolhardy risks. To the man who zealously strives to hold and increase his store, may be just as ready at the call of duty and honor to sacrifice all.
Second. A man should be just before he is generous. To be mean and grasping, to take advantage in business transactions in order to amass wealth is not atoned for by giving it away in charity.
Third. A man should give in his lifetime. It is no benevolence after a life of miserly greed or selfish indulgence to leave in charity what one cannot carry away with him. If a man has children, such conduct is downright dishonest. He has no right to assume that his heirs will not make as good a use of his riches as himself, or any board of trustees he may appoint. In this connection, it would be well to state that this world was made for live people to live in and manage. When a man is dead and underground he had better keep still. All wisdom does not die with any particular man. And if being without natural heirs he leaves his property for charitable purposes he had better appoint a board of trustees that he has confidence in, and then couple his bequest with as few conditions as possible.
Fourth. A man should be careful in giving that he does not start a new breed of paupers. The more general a gift the better. To endow educational institutions, build roads and bridges, which benefit the whole community is making a better use of money than to endow a hospital for any particular class of patients. The best use a man makes of money, I do not say the only good use is to establish some industry which will enable people to help themselves. This should be so managed as to be profitable. In fact its prosperity or the lack of it, is the test of its usefulness. A business that does not pay cannot be very useful for long. If it does not pay, it becomes a drain on the community and not a benefit and therefore has no true charity. A well-managed factory, farm, railroad, mercantile industry, mining property is as great an influence for good as a church. I do not mean by well managed, so managed as to accumulate enormous wealth for the proprietor at the expense of the misery of the operatives. But so managed that all who are dependent on it from the man who oils the engine to the man who buys the goods or travels on the road feel that it is a blessing to them.
Lastly, there is no man however humble who every day of his life does not have some opportunity of making some use of his small surplus of time, money, or kind feeling which will make the world better for his having lived in it. The world may never know it, He who made the world will take account of it.