Elliot Gerson, secretary of the Rhodes trust, points to an interesting trend: In the past thirty or so years, Rhodes Scholars have disproportionately chosen to go into Wall Street careers. He writes:
“Only three American Rhodes scholars in the 1970s (out of 320) went directly into business from Oxford; by the late 1980s the number grew to that many in a year. Recently, more than twice as many went into business in just one year than did in the entire 1970s.”
Gerson notes that some of those who have gone into business “have gifts that realistically could [have been] expected to lead to world-changing breakthroughs, cures or innovations; to greater respect for politics; or to hundreds of profoundly moved and inspired students.” But in going to Wall Street in pursuit of profits, they abandon this idealism. In choosing to make money, they forsake the more noble career that could have been theirs.
The root of the problem, according to Gerson, is too much money on Wall Street. He laments that what many hoped would be “a silver lining of last year’s financial crisis”—a significant drop in earnings differentials on Wall Street—has turned out not to have occurred, and concludes cynically, “So how many more of America’s young and brightest will ask themselves what kind of chumps they are to give up the chance to earn 100 or 500 times as much as their mentors, their doctors, their favorite professors, their idols and heroes?”
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents an entirely different view of money:
“You stand in the midst of the greatest achievements of the greatest productive civilization and you wonder why it’s crumbling around you, while you’re damning its life-blood–money. You look upon money as the savages did before you, and you wonder why the jungle is creeping back to the edge of your cities. Throughout men’s history, money was always seized by looters of one brand or another, whose names changed, but whose method remained the same: to seize wealth by force and to keep the producers bound, demeaned, defamed, deprived of honor. That phrase about the evil of money, which you mouth with such righteous recklessness, comes from a time when wealth was produced by the labor of slaves–slaves who repeated the motions once discovered by somebody’s mind and left unimproved for centuries. So long as production was ruled by force, and wealth was obtained by conquest, there was little to conquer, Yet through all the centuries of stagnation and starvation, men exalted the looters, as aristocrats of the sword, as aristocrats of birth, as aristocrats of the bureau, and despised the producers, as slaves, as traders, as shopkeepers–as industrialists.
“To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money–and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being–the self-made man–the American industrialist.
“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose–because it contains all the others–the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money.’
In short, Ayn Rand viewed the act of making money as the most noble, productive goal a person could hold. She rejected the notion that we should spend our lives, not trying to achieve our values, but sacrificing them for the supposed betterment of humanity.
She considered producing values—whether in the form of creating art, researching a new technology, or acquiring stock trading skills—a primary virtue. And money symbolized and quantified that virtue. Sure, she knew that some people had pretentious motives—but she didn’t see that as essential or important or representative of the value-producing, money-making personality.
Those Rhodes scholars that have pursued careers in Wall Street in an effort to honestly earn a high standard of living should be commended for their dedication to such a demanding, important industry. Instead of condemning their choice, we should be supporting these individuals, who are some of the brightest people in our nation today. And we should applaud them for exercising their high-mindedness in the pursuit of lofty profits.