In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, East Egg represents inherited wealth and privilege, while West Egg represents wealth earned through innovation and hard work, a distinction at the core of the American ideal. We have always embraced a dynamic capitalism, marked not by stasis but rather “creative destruction,” lionizing trust-busters as heroes of competition. Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase, feared that eventually capitalism would lead to corporatism and destroy the entrepreneur, the lifeblood of the capitalist system. One disturbing implication of Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital, is that the American economy is slipping into a form of “rentier” capitalism, in which passive income from wealth, increasingly in the form of inherited fortunes, is supplanting dynamism, hard work and innovation. The term rentier came into use in the mid-19th century to describe people who lived off income from property rather than creating something of value. And now the rentiers have found a way to protect their gains—buying influence in the political system.
The rise of rentier capitalism
Richard Hofstadter observed about American capitalism, “Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.” This was what Fitzgerald saw in the 1920s: dead, inherited wealth next to dynamic new money. He saw the former as aristocratic, with only the facade of knowledge and virtue, while the latter was entirely uninterested in wisdom and seduced by wealth. Oscar Wilde observed the same in Victorian England, where the illusion of virtue (being named Earnest) was far more important than its practice. Today, much the same dynamic exists between the inherited rentier wealth of the Kochs and Waltons and the new money of the Zuckerbergs and Brins. There was a day when aristocrats were at least cultured. Today, instead, we have a wealthy class with the culture of new money and innovativeness of old money (i.e., rather little of either). This new rentier class, with little to offer society, subsists largely on legalized grift or, in economic terms, rent.