The role of the rich

Posted: Mar 09, 2001 12:00 AM

A RECENT catalogue from the giant second-hand camera dealer KEH listed a Canon camera made for the Japanese navy during World War II. This model is described as one of only 15 such cameras made and as being still in excellent condition. Its price is $40,000.

Most of us who shop for second-hand camera equipment aren't planning to pay 40 grand. But clearly there are some who are rich enough and nostalgic enough to pay a hundred times more than is necessary to buy a camera of comparable photographic quality today.

Those on the political left, for whom indignation is a way of life, are deeply offended by such frivolous expenditures by the rich. Congressman Dick Gephardt or David Bonior could no doubt produce several sermonettes on the subject. But the great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the real cost of the rich to the rest of society is what they consume. How much is it costing the rest of us that some old-money heir or heiress, or some new Silicon Valley millionaire in his twenties, is splurging on this half-century-old camera that nobody else wants?

Suppose instead that the rich wanted the same things that everybody else wanted. What if Bill Gates developed a fetish for meat and potatoes, and spent ten or twenty billion dollars collecting vast amounts of meat and potatoes in refrigerated warehouses? This would deprive many working families across America of food and drive up the price to others.

The more far out and off-the-wall the purchases of the rich are, the less anybody else is deprived. When some rare stamp or antique piece of furniture is auctioned off for a small fortune at Sotheby's, it is no skin off anybody else's nose. To me, antiques are just old furniture and a stamp that won't get my letter where it is going is just a little piece of paper with some glue on it.By definition, the rich can take all the serious necessities of life for granted. In fact, so can millions of other Americans who are not rich. What is left for the rich to want? Stuff that gives them a sense of specialness or distinction.

Vanity is not the most attractive of human traits, but it is not the most harmful either. Nor is vanity confined to the rich. Young slum hoodlums who fight -- or even kill -- other kids to get their designer clothes or sneakers are doing the same thing, at a lot higher cost to others.

There was a time when the poor stole bread to feed their children. You could understand that. But today, when riots and looting sweep through some slum, food is left unmolested while the looters -- supposedly "enraged" by some injustice -- can be seen happily carrying off TV sets, fancy clothes and the like.

Ironically, what the rich are often praised for is likely to do more harm than what they are condemned for. Donating money to left-wing causes brings automatic approbation in the media, in academia and wherever else the intelligentsia hang out.

Buy up land and donate it for "open space" and an idle heir or heiress will be forgiven for all the money that some ancestor of theirs earned by providing goods and services to millions. But this is much more like buying up meat and potatoes than it is like blowing 40 grand on an old camera.

The less land is available to build on, the more people are going to be crowded in the remaining land that is available -- and the higher rents are going to be on that land. Should people packed into slums be grateful that the actions of the rich are driving up their rents and preventing them from getting a little elbow room in what the anointed like to call "urban sprawl"?

Then there are those rich people who bankrolled all sorts of Communist-front and fellow-traveler movements during the Cold War. How many people in the Gulags do you suppose felt the same glow of appreciation for their open mindedness and moral equivalence that was felt in Hollywood or Malibu?

Some rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like to "give back" by literally serving food to the homeless. In other words, they are showing their gratitude to American society by subsidizing the lifestyle of people who refuse to work, in an economy with millions of unfilled jobs, and who carry out all sorts of anti-social or even criminal behavior on the streets.

All in all, the vanities and vices of the rich may do far less harm than their supposed virtues. Idle self-indulgence may not be pretty, but if it keeps the rich off the streets and out of mischief, so be it.