‘The wealthy invariably win’ is an observation by John Kampfner that has recently been given intellectual underpinning by Thomas Piketty, who in Capital in the Twenty-First Century came up with a neat little formula to prove that the rich always get richer relative to the rest of us because the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of growth in the economy as a whole. But the celebrity French economist spoiled his dazzling simplification by packing seven hundred pages of theory and (some say unreliable) data around it. A former New Statesman editor, Kampfner has found a more readable way of tackling the same theme, by retelling the life stories of a cross-section of the super rich over the past two thousand years and drawing parallels between them.
To some extent, it must be said, the parallels are obvious. To amass a giant fortune, whether in ancient Rome or modern Russia, has always required ruthlessness and political clout. Great philanthropy, be that in Renaissance Florence or 19th-century America, is very often the fruit of an earlier phase of