Andrew Carnegie

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What is Carnegie's attitude toward inequality of wealth? In his view, where does it come from, is it a problem, and what (if anything) should be done about it?

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Much of Carnegie’s philosophy on income inequality was influenced by his own lower-class upbringing. Born in Scotland to a poor immigrant family, Carnegie moved to Pennsylvania in 1848 and worked in a textile mill, making only $1.20 per week. Throughout his childhood, he continued to move up the social ladder...

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Much of Carnegie’s philosophy on income inequality was influenced by his own lower-class upbringing. Born in Scotland to a poor immigrant family, Carnegie moved to Pennsylvania in 1848 and worked in a textile mill, making only $1.20 per week. Throughout his childhood, he continued to move up the social ladder and earn more and more money—first becoming a telegraph messenger in 1853, then the secretary to Thomas Scott, then the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Eventually, Carnegie owned shares of stock in railroads, bridges, and steel-making plants. His was a story of rags to riches, and Carnegie embodied the possibilities that America afforded to those who were willing to work hard and had steadfast determination.

Thus, Carnegie’s philosophy of income inequality reflected his commitment to the principles of big business. He believed that he and the other captains of industry should serve as benefactors of the public good, a belief he followed through on via his many donations to Pittsburgh and other cities for the construction of public libraries. In Carnegie’s most famous essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” the steel magnate argued that the vast distance that had emerged between the millionaire and the laborer actually represented a positive evolution of society under modern conditions. The process of trade and the accumulation of massive amounts of wealth by a few was a good thing, in his view, because it ensured that the nation’s vast resources would be concentrated in those hands that knew best how to use them. Combined with his paternalistic belief in the philanthropic responsibilities of big business, Carnegie looked at income inequality as the only measure of ensuring stability.

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