To assert today that the rich are for the most part entirely harmless is to dare much, for the contrary opinion is greatly in favor. Such wholesale condemnation of the rich assumes a more general and a more specific form. They are said to be harmful to the body politic simply because they have more money than the average: their property has been wrongly taken from persons who have a better right to it, or is withheld from people who need it more. But aside from being constructively a moral detriment from the mere possession of wealth, the rich man may do specific harm through indulging his vices, maintaining an inordinate display, charging too much for his own services, crushing his weaker competitor, corrupting the legislature and the judiciary, finally by asserting flagrantly his right to what he erroneously deems to be his own. Such are the general and specific charges of modern anti-capitalism against wealth. Like many deep rooted convictions, these rest less on analysis of particular instances than upon axioms received without criticism. The word spoliation does yeoman service in covering with one broad blanket of prejudice the most diverse cases of wealth. But spoliation is assumed, not proved. My own conviction that most wealth is quite blameless, whether under the general or specific accusation, is based on no comprehensive axiom, but simply on the knowledge of a number of particular fortunes and of their owners. Such a road towards truth is highly unromantic. The student of particular phenomena is unable to pose as the champion of the race. But the method has the modest advantage of resting not on a priori definitions, but on inductions from actual experience; hence of being relatively scientific.
Before sketching the line of such an investigation, let me say that in logic and common sense there is no presumption against the wealthy person. Ever since civilization began and until yesterday it has been assumed that wealth was simply ability legitimately funded and transmitted. Even modern humanitarians, while dallying with the equation wealth = spoliation, have been unwilling wholly to relinquish the historic view of the case. I have always admired the courage with which Mr. Howells faced the situation in one of those charming essays for the Easy Chair of Harper’s. Driving one night in a comfortable cab he was suddenly confronted by the long drawn out misery of the midnight bread line. For a moment the vision of these hungry fellow men overcame him. He felt guilty on his cushions, and possibly entertained some St. Martin-like project of dividing his swallowtail with the nearest unfortunate. Then common sense in the form of his companion came to his rescue. She remarked “Perhaps we are right and they are wrong.” Why not? At any rate Mr. Howells was not permitted to condemn in a moment of compassion the career of thrift, industry and genius,