Beinstein column: Andrew Carnegie and the virtues of liberty
Historians of early America say it took an outsider like Alexander Hamilton to create a stable, prosperous America. The same could be said of Andrew Carnegie. Hailing not originally from even the Caribbean, but from faraway Scotland, he, too, showed us what a free America is capable of achieving.
Born into the humblest of circumstances, Carnegie coupled a great mind for steel with an extraordinary work ethic to amass a fortune. His success, however, comes not in the form of his financial earnings, although at one point he was the richest man in America, but what he did with those earnings.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, he gave almost all of his wealth away, 90 percent. And with that money he advanced the cause of liberty in a way very few people ever have. He built libraries all over America, including in some of its poorest areas, democratizing knowledge.
In fact, it was a young man in Georgia by the name of Clarence Thomas who, when not working terribly hard for his grandfather, would frequent Savannah’s Carnegie Library. Perhaps without such an escape, Thomas would have never had the spark to eventually become a Supreme Court justice, standing up for the same constitutional freedoms Carnegie once had.
Related to the story of Clarence Thomas is Carnegie’s heartfelt compassion for recently freed black slaves. So enthralled was he with Booker T. Washington’s message of hard work and self-reliance, Carnegie heavily funded many of Washington’s education efforts to teach young black men a profitable skill. In fact, Carnegie dubbed Washington a “black Moses.”
Despite his wealth, or perhaps even because of it, Carnegie’s distaste for British royalty stayed with him till the grave. Hereditary privilege, the House of Lords, artificial help from the State — he sponsored many writers and thinkers who propagated America’s commitment to republicanism.
Carnegie, additionally, stayed clear of the imperialism bug. Worried about the consequences of an America that looked to annex faraway countries like the Philippines, he also helped fund missions that would tamp down some of America’s jingoism. And relatedly, Carnegie detested war and thought it most important to fund the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And even though we have gotten trapped into many wars since, his dream of friendly relations with all countries should never go away. In fact, the attainment of peace might be the most important goal of every generation.
And lastly, it was Carnegie’s giving that would inspire others to give as well. Rockefeller, Morgan, Ford — many of those century’s tycoons got their inspiration from Carnegie. And it’s true giving, not giving forced by the state, that is the most important kind of charity.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in one his last speeches, “Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich. His wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible.”
This movement for greater economic liberty, although sometimes shunned in the mainstream, is something that should be heard. Why is it that a group of faraway bureaucrats think they can plan our lives for us so much better than we can? Why do we need to be told how much we should save for this, or spend on that?
And who is to say the government is a better provider of research than our most successful capitalists would be? And yet to really win this argument, our most successful capitalists will have to mimic Carnegie.
Who will fund programs to bridge our differences with China so we can have a good, long-lasting relationship with a country which, at one point in history, had more freedom and prosperity than Europe? Who will create the definitive models of education excellence that other schools can emulate? And who will fund the next Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell or Leo Tolstoy, to prove that great strides in the arts and sciences usually come not from the state but from free individuals? In short, the more we prove how worthy we are of our freedom, the easier it will be to take back.
Carnegie was by no means without his faults. He mishandled the infamous Homestead Strike, was often unavailable to hear the complaints of his employees, and certainly engaged in opulence the way most wealthy people do. And yet on balance, he proved how worthy he was of his freedoms and liberties. Let us now try to do the same. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, the “God who gave us life gave us liberty.”
Alex Beinstein of Carbondale was a Republican primary congressional candidate in 2016 challenging Congressman Scott Tipton. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent.