The Baron de Rastignac thinks of becoming an advocate, does he? There’s a nice prospect for you! Ten years of drudgery straight away. You are obliged to live at the rate of a thousand francs a month; you must have a library of law books, live in chambers, go into society, go down on your knees to ask a solicitor for briefs, lick the dust off the floor of the Palais de Justice. If this kind of business led to anything, I should not say no; but just give me the names of five advocates here in Paris who by the time that they are fifty are making fifty thousand francs a year! Bah! I would sooner turn pirate on the high seas than have my soul shrivel up inside me like that. How will you find the capital? There is but one way, marry a woman who has money.
It was much the same, the French economist Thomas Piketty tells us in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, two decades earlier in Jane Austen’s rural England, and it remained so five decades later on Henry James’ Washington Square. To belong to the landed or urban gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries—that is, to possess “books or musical instruments or jewelry or ball gowns”—you needed at least 20 to 30 times the income of the average person, and the most lucrative professions paid only half that. You needed capital, typically in the form of land. And you needed a lot of it—much more than could typically be amassed in the course of one lifetime. Consequently, “society” (i.e., the rich) consisted almost entirely of rentiers living off inherited wealth. It was much more true in Europe than in the United States, but it was true up to a point here, too, especially in the antebellum South.
This “patrimonial capitalism,” as Piketty calls it, was dealt a mortal blow a hundred years ago with the outbreak of World War I, which diverted financial resources, impeded shipping and trade, destroyed infrastructure, and killed members of the officer (i.e., upper) class disproportionately. Then the Great Depression and World War II put it out of its misery. In recent memory, the way to get rich has been to do it yourself. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, is the opposite of a 19th-century society dandy—an almost comically unglamorous figure who parlayed an unexceptional upbringing in the upper middle class into a reported $76 billion fortune (according to Forbes). Plenty of others get rich through more questionable means (especially the manipulation of abstruse financial instruments), and a lively discussion has begun about how we should address the three-decade trend of growing income inequality. But it’s income that mostly interests us, not wealth, because income is the currency of the modern economy. Gone are the days when the only way to acquire an upper-class income was to marry into a family fortune.
Or are they? Piketty says patrimonial capitalism is coming back. Being born into or marrying wealth never stopped being the easiest path to acquiring a fortune; Piketty fears it may once again become the most common path as well. [Continue reading…]