Why Elon Musk and co have a moral duty to save the West

The Medici family, depicted in Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi (1459-60, detail)
The Medici family, depicted in Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi (1459-60, detail) - Getty

The super-rich have been integral to the West since historical records began. Only massive crises such as the Black Death or the world wars have reduced the concentration of wealth in society; nonetheless, in the aftermath, business as normal has usually resumed for the “one per cent”.

Yet, though we live in an age of permacrisis – the financial crisis of 2007–8, Covid-19, a series of major conflicts – that wealth has, this time, been growing as never before: between March 2020 and November 2022, global billionaire assets increased by 50 per cent. In As Gods Among Men, his history of the super-rich in the West, Guido Alfani identifies this as a historical anomaly. Furthermore, he argues, the tycoon class in Western societies have also stopped doing what they always did: intervening to alleviate crises. They would contribute to central spending, for instance, in times of war and famine. Cosimo de’ Medici rebuilt 15th-century Florence with his private resources; John Pierpoint Morgan contributed his own to stave off a major financial crisis in the United States in 1907.

Such munificence has vanished in recent years. During the financial crisis, public resources were used to “bail out the banks”, rather than bankers bailing out the country as Morgan had corralled his peers to do. Such an approach also prevailed during the Covid-19 pandemic. As Alfani writes, in trying to avoid this kind of contribution in exceptional times, the world’s super-rich have “basically [been] rejecting a role which has served to justify the very existence of substantial wealth inequalities”.

Alfani is an economic historian with a wide-angled lens. Having spent years consulting the archives of Renaissance Italy, he brings a surprising level of detail to discussions of wealth accumulation in both distant and more modern times. One of his central focuses is the role of medieval scholastic theology in shaping Western attitudes to wealth: following the work of Aquinas and others, avarice was seen by the medieval Church as a great sin – but so too was exhibitionist profligacy. In his Commedia (completed 1321), the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri placed the hoarders and the spenders together in the fourth circle of Hell, where they suffered the same punishment. The comparisons with medieval Tuscany suggest that little has changed in these debates in the last 700 years; indeed, Alfani writes, the concentration of wealth today in Western societies is roughly the same as it was before the Black Death.

Tesla and X CEO Elon Musk, pictured in Versailles in May
Tesla and X CEO Elon Musk, pictured in Versailles in May - Reuters

One pivotal issue is what is now dubbed “philanthrocapitalism”: the propensity for multi-billionaires such as Bill Gates to give away their wealth for whatever they deem to be the public good. In 2010, Gates, together with his then-wife Melinda and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett, created the ‘Giving Pledge’, committing to giving away over half their wealth before their deaths. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the original 40 billionaires who signed; by the end of 2020, the number had grown to 216. Even so, as billionaire wealth has continued to soar, critics have seen this culture of “giving” as a way both of escaping taxes and of exerting undue influence over the public sphere. When Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto-currency empire collapsed earlier this year, he was accused not only of profiteering through embezzlement and fraud, but also of channelling the proceeds into political donations.

The super-rich have always had an influence over politics, and as Alfani shows, debates about philanthrocapitalism are not new. In his treatise De Avaritia (On Avarice, 1428–9), the Tuscan humanist Poggio Bracciolini has one imaginary interlocutor declare to another:

You want to expel the greedy from the cities, as if they were guilty of the worst crimes… I believe instead that their presence should be promoted, as a valid support for the people… They have abundant means to aid the sick, the weak, to benefit many in their needs… It would be very useful to place [in cities] many greedy individuals, in order for them to constitute a kind of barn of private money able to be of assistance to everybody.

Yet while the debates may move in circles, what has changed is the approach of the rich themselves. After two centuries in which central taxation was used to address the hyper-concentration of wealth, the focus since the 1980s has shifted to the goodwill of the wealthy, and towards the end of his measured and resonant book, Alfani brings us to the present. Whereas the Black Death damaged the relative position of the super-rich, the Covid-19 pandemic did the reverse. While only conspiracists claim that the rich “caused the pandemic”, another kind of critique, Alfani says, is valid: “That of having failed to help in (paying for) a solution.” As he notes, much of the enormous cost of the response is currently scheduled to be paid by future generations instead.

Thus, where since the 1800s democratic institutions had shaped how great wealth should be redistributed, Western societies now rely more and more on the super-rich to do it for themselves. Readers will differ as to the wisdom of this approach. For Alfani, when, rather than financing the recovery from crisis, the super-rich profit from it, we face a dangerous rupture in human relations – one that threatens the political contract that has shaped the West for centuries.

As Gods Among Men is published by Princeton University Press at £30. To order your copy for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books