Comparative Wealth: Bill Gates and the Duke of Westminster

One hears so often from the media that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer that it is commonly accepted as fact instead of the debateable assertion that it really is. If we look back in history, however, we notice two things: the wealthy of today tend to have earned their wealth, as opposed to inheriting it, and that the rich of today live much more modestly than the rich of yesterday.

We have explored in previous historical perspectives how living standards for the great majority have improved over time. (See the four most recent historical perspectives, as well as those from October 6, 13, and 20.) This week we’ll look at the changing living standards of the rich. Information regarding the living standards of the aristocracy in England is from “London: The Glamour Years 1919-1939.”

One can hardly avoid hearing about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The world of computing and technology has more than its share of the wealthy, many of them founders of startup companies which have become huge businesses. Within this category the man most often vilified and deified is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The son of a prosperous, though not wealthy, Seattle lawyer, Gates dropped out of Harvard to start the company which would eventually become today’s Microsoft, which holds an 80 percent share of the world’s markets for operating system software for personal computers.

Starting with nothing of his own, Gates worked tirelessly to become the success he is today. Even after becoming one of the world’s weathiest men, Gates continues to often work from 9 a.m. to midnight. In this regard, Gates is not unusual. Those who have made fortunes in modern American business have usually started with little or nothing, and through dint of brilliance, good timing, ingenuity and perseverance have made great fortunes. Others, such as Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, continue the same pattern of hard work, even after all material desires have long since been satisfied.

Now, for historical perspective, let us compare another well-known figure, the second Duke of Westminster, with Bill Gates. Even as recently as the 1920s the Duke was representative of Old Wealth. Which is to say, inherited wealth. The Duke, of course, would not have dreamed of working, nor would any of his peers, who disdained work as beneath them. Yet those of his rank in the aristocracy lived, not like princes, but like kings. The Duke of Sutherland owned almost 1.4 million acres of land, owned five palaces in Scotland and four in England. The Duke of Buccleuch owned a mere 458,739 acres, spread over 13 counties. These men could march about 60 in any direction without even the thought of trespassing another person’s property. Their palaces sometimes had over 350 rooms.

The Duke of Atholl had a private army. The fifth Duke of Portland built an underground palace reached by a mile-long underground driveway. The palace included the largest underground apartment in England, which had a 22-foot high ceiling (underground), as well as a glass-roofed conservatory and a library 250 feet long.

Alongside these edifices, Gates’ new home, about which much has been written, seems quite modest, as do the homes of most of today’s rich.

Perhaps most important is not the question of material possessions, but of dignity and the humane treatment of others. Gates, working 15 hour days under great stress, came under considerable criticism for what in today’s world passes for high-handed treatment of employees. He has since worked to improve this personal flaw.

On the other hand, the Duke of Westminster, who didn’t work at all, and was under no pressure, tested his employees severely with his wild mood swings and unreasonable demands. For example, one night at the Hotel Lotti in Paris the Duke had an urge for a peach. The hotel management, catering to the Duke’s every whim, sent the waiter to find a peach. Although it was late at night and all the shops were closed, the waiter was told he would be instantly dismissed in the event he failed to find the Duke a peach. Desperate to avoid losing his job, the waiter threw a rock through the window of a closed grocery store, grabbed the peach, and ran back to the hotel with the Duke’s fruit. (The waiter was a young man who ended up becoming a brilliant and famous writer, George Orwell, author of “Animal Farm” and “1984.”) While Gates’ relatively mild behavior is a subject of criticism, the outrageous demands of the Duke were, in his time, considered par for the course.

Yes, it is undeniable that there are huge differences in the living standards of the rich and poor today, but if one looks closely over time you will notice certain distinct trends: The poorer members of society are becoming much better off over time.

The rich are increasingly people who have earned, rather than inherited, their wealth. The higher-earning workers of today, such as professionals and entrepreneurs, tend to work much longer hours than lower-earning workers. And the super-rich of today not only treat others less imperiously, but live relatively modestly as compared to their economic forebears.

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