The cash comes second

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The richest men are not the most materialistic. Nor has it ever been otherwise.

Seventy years after his death, it is still hard to disentangle the mixture of motives that made John D Rockefeller not only the world’s richest man but also its greatest philanthropist.

“I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictation of my conscience,” he said.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel magnate and contemporary of Rockefeller, applied the same determination to giving his fortune away that he applied to building it. “The man who dies rich thus dies in disgrace,” he famously remarked.

Henry Ford built his motor company because he was passionate about cars, and passionate about bringing cars to a mass market.

Once he was sued by a group of shareholders who demanded the company pay out larger dividends. The shareholders won the case. Most of the dividends went to Ford himself, who used the cash to buy back the minority interest. With hindsight, the disgruntled shareholders would have done better if they had kept quiet.

Sam Walton, founder and principal shareholder of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, drove himself round in a pick-up truck until his death.

He recalled: “I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never particularly a goal of mine.”

But create a huge personal fortune he most certainly did: the top places in Forbes’s rich list are dominated by members of the Walton family.

I cannot honestly recommend that you read Bill Gates’s accounts of his career, but if you do you will be left with a clear sense that the man’s primary interest is in computers rather than cash, in gilt-edged business rather than marble bathrooms.

Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Gates has become a substantial philanthropist, and thrown himself with enthusiasm into the application of business methods to charitable purposes.

Even the egregious Donald Trump begins his autobiography, Trump: The Art of the Deal, with: “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more money than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.”

No doubt unconsciously, Trump echoes John Stuart Mill: he engages in “some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end”.

Building a large and successful business, as did Rockefeller and Carnegie, Walton and Gates, requires exceptional talent and hard work, a devotion to business and to the detail of business.

There is no reason to think these characteristics are linked to greed and materialism, rather the opposite.

People who are obsessively interested in money are drawn to get-rich-quick schemes, legal or criminal, rather than business opportunities. When these schemes come off, as occasionally they do, they are inclined to retire to villas in the sun.

Even if we suspect an element of humbug in Rockefeller’s assertion that making money is a gift from God, and find something ridiculous in Trump’s claim that “deals are my art form”, these statements tell us something about how these men approached the activities that made them rich.

The richest men are not the most materialistic. Nor has it ever been otherwise.

Warren Buffett is another of the world’s richest men. He enjoys his wealth as a demonstration of his skill as an investor, not for the material goods it brings. He still lives in the Omaha house he bought almost 50 years ago and continues to take pleasure in a Nebraskan steak washed down with cherry Coke. After several years in which he described his corporate jet as “The Indefensible”, he sold it and bought the largest shared-ownership aircraft business — the whole company.

I have wondered why senior executives insisted on paying themselves so much. Why was it so important to receive money they did not need and would never have time to spend?

The remuneration was necessary, I realised, to sustain their sense of their own importance.

What self-respecting chief executive would accept that he should be paid in the bottom quartile of chief-executive salaries in comparable companies — although, by definition, a quarter of people must find themselves in that position?

Even among City and Wall Street traders and investment bankers, rightly identified as exemplars of greed, bonuses come to matter as much for the kudos they confer as the cash they put in individuals’ pockets.

Why else would they be so obsessed by sums paid to their colleagues and competitors?

But the direct pursuit of wealth, whether as an end in itself or for the possessions it brings, tends to damage both the individuals and organisations that seek it.

Buffett is a rare exception, treating his success with engaging if slightly affected self-deprecation and maintaining a commitment to strong ethical values.

While the representation of the successful businessman as an aggressive bully is a popular caricature, that style rarely makes for good business.

Trump, the founding star of the American television show The Apprentice, is a complex character who revels in self-parody. His British counterpart, Lord Sugar, appears to take himself more seriously.

Everyday experience tells us that while greed is a human motive, it is not, for most, a dominant one.

We enjoy the kindness of strangers just as we benefit from dedicated teachers and devoted nurses. Most people work not only for material rewards, but for the satisfaction of the job and the respect of friends and colleagues.

Greed is not generally an overriding motive even for the very wealthy. For them, money is a mark of status, a register of achievement — or the by-product of a passion for power or for business.

And while there are people who are obsessive in their greed, that obsession frequently destroys them or the organisations that attract them.

The amassing of wealth, like the attainment of happiness, is an oblique process, and the overly direct approach frequently ends in the bankruptcy courts — or the criminal ones.

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