August 24, 2011 2:09PM

The Kennedy View of Wealth

In a column bemoaning Ayn Rand’s influence in America, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend writes:

I also see a moral issue with Ayn Rand’s insistence that all of us, CEOs included, should be totally free of the ties that bind. I especially disagree when it comes to CEOs. As I wrote here a few months ago, the wealthy have a special responsibility. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. Participating in government and civic life, serving in war, helping the less fortunate, and–yes–paying a fair share of taxes are inescapable responsibilities for all Americans, especially for those who have realized the American dream that inspires us all. (emphasis added)

I hear this idea a lot, and of course it can be traced to the words of Jesus: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (King James Version, Luke 12:48) But something struck me in its being quoted by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Much has been given to her, and to her relatives. And thus wealth has always seemed to her something that falls like manna from heaven. Townsend is the granddaughter of Joseph P. Kennedy and of coal magnate George Skakel. Wikipedia sums up the charmed life her grandparents’ wealth gave her:

Townsend was born in Greenwich, Connecticut.…She spent most of her childhood in McLean, Virginia and attended Stone Ridge School in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. She graduated from The Putney School in Vermont. She attended Radcliffe College (which later became part of Harvard University), receiving her bachelor’s degree in history and literature with honors in 1974.

It’s a wonderful life. To her and her family, much was given — by the hard work of an earlier generation. But most CEOs are not given anything. They have to create wealth. The ones who get the richest, the entrepreneurs, typically work very hard for years. They invent things — cars, copying processes, software systems, computers, business practices. Sam Walton became fabulously wealthy by delivering mundane items a few pennies cheaper to tens of millions of people, Ray Kroc by standardizing the cheap and efficient delivery of reliable hamburgers. Sure, some CEOs inherit their jobs, but they still have to work to update their products and keep up with the competition. A person who makes money doesn’t feel that “much has been given” to him, though rich Americans do nevertheless give a great deal to charity.

Perhaps we might change Kennedy Townsend’s mantra to

To those from whom we have received much — the incredible standard of living that investors and businesspeople have helped us all to achieve — much gratitude is owed. And if they also devote some of their own wealth to charitable endeavors, they are doubly beneficent.