Jonathan Aberman: An Italian lesson — societies are defined by the choices the wealthy make

Last week I was in Italy, where I was repeatedly reminded that a society’s direction is shaped by the choices made by its wealthiest citizens. This holds true whether the society is organized as a republic or an empire.

The Renaissance is often said to have started in Florence in the late 14th century. For one hundred years, Florence was the center of unprecedented upheaval in artistic techniques, architecture, philosophy, and political thought. Perspective was introduced into painting. The largest dome built since antiquity rose above the terracotta roofs of residents. Sculpture became truly representative of the human form. All this was possible because the merchants and bankers of Florence accumulated enormous wealth over a relatively short period of time. They chose to spend their money on artists and architects to advertise Florence’s power to its enemies and deter attack, to encourage the population’s loyalty to its city, and in many cases, to fulfill their religious duties. They spent their money in ways that benefited the city, as well as themselves.

The Roman Republic and the first few hundred years of empire also allowed for the creation of great wealth, largely because of wars of conquest. During the Republican period, great public spaces were created for trade, for courts, and for worship. These were paid for by the government and by private individuals. The early Empire saw public spending on baths, aqueducts, granaries, roads, entertainments, and shrines. These expenses were undertaken both by the emperors and by local wealthy persons, who sought their fellow citizens’ respect (and sometimes their votes) and a good afterlife.

But there is no immutable law that the wealthy will spend their money on civic activities. In the 16th century as Florence’s political system changed from a republic to a hereditary monarchy, wealth concentrated into the hands of the ruling family was funneled more and more into public displays of consumption to remind subjects of their hereditary right to power. Chapels, artwork and buildings were funded to convey the dominance of the Medici family, and its hereditary right to rule. The same Medici family that a hundred years earlier when Florence was a republic were the leading funders of publicly focused projects.

Looking at our community today I wonder how different we truly are. Wealth funds university endowments to pursue intellectual discovery, provides risk capital to develop new businesses and charitable organizations that address social challenges. The wealthy build things that are important to them and focus their money on the things that they care about. Some put their money into causes that they believe in. Others spend on consumption. Some don’t want to pay taxes to support public benefits, while others are happy to do so because they believe it is their responsibility.

We are at a very interesting point in our society’s future. Undoubtedly you are hard pressed to find a consensus opinion of how the wealthy should spend their money. That does not mean, of course, that people don’t have an opinion.

For my part I think that if we are to live up to the American ideal of the freedom of choice, we must acknowledge that this means that those with wealth should be free to spend it as they wish. There is no immutable law that says how the wealthy must act – nor should there be. But, it is fair to remind all who have the wealth to shape our society’s future, that their power to choose on what to spend also carries a somber responsibility.

Much of what affects us today – many of the things we associate with modernity – were built from the projects and the public works that the wealth of Florence and Italy funded. The choices that their wealthy made affected the development of their societies and ours as well in lasting and significant ways.

Last week was a reminder to me that for those of us in our region with the wherewithal to apply wealth to address a social challenge are providing the clearest clues of what our society will value, and how it will grow.

As it is the case for all of us today, and for those that are to follow in years to come, we must all acknowledge that societies are shaped by how the wealthy spend their money. While there may not be a consensus on what they should spend their money on, I hope that our wealthy understand that it not just today’s world they are shaping: They are also influencing subsequent generations.  They have the power to choose, and the responsibility to choose wisely.

I wonder what those who follow will think of their decisions. And, I hope that our wealthiest citizens will care what they think.

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