Friday, August 1, 2014

The Rothschilds, Banking and Amorality. Reflections Inspired by Niall Ferguson’s "The House of Rothschild".

Reading Ferguson’s book, depicting the seemingly callous actions of the Rothschild banking establishment, has caused me to dally upon questions of morality. There are a couple of ways to approach moral questions. One is from the observer’s own narrow, personal traditions or perspective: The Rothschilds were (“evil,” “wrong,” “immoral,” whatever one’s favorite designation) because they violated the dictates of the observer’s moral code.  Another is from the perspective of the person performing the action in question: An immoral person knows the difference between helpful or harmful acts and chooses the harmful one. An amoral person simply has no moral compass in a situation and performs the actions that serve his or her ends. The first approach is designed to confirm one’s own moral stance. The second approach can lead to insight concerning the actions of another. So it is the second approach I will be employing. I realize that the question of whether the Rothschild business practices were immoral or amoral is a tiny bit of philosophical hair-splitting. The distinction is only useful as a way of understanding that banking house.
To the House of Rothschild, whatever made money for the company was acceptable. Whether they were providing a loan to the British government that helped abolish slavery in the empire (Ferguson, p. 230), or providing a loan requested by the Russian Empire to suppress Polish independence (Ferguson, p.246), the sole purpose was to make money. That the actions were helpful or harmful to humane ends (or “good” or “evil” for the more Judeo-Christian reader) did not enter into the equation. By this definition, Rothschild business practices were amoral.

But using this definition, almost all banks and large corporations are amoral. There’s no reason to single-out the House of Rothschild specifically, unless one has a personal motivation to vilify their bank. The Boeing Corporation doesn’t care if it sells jets to fly passengers or jets to bomb villages; it’s the selling that counts. Banks will loan money to newly liberated countries and to armies which kill the civilians of those countries. The only question is can the borrower repay the loan. The purpose of a capitalist endeavor is to make money. The companies who add moral considerations to their actions are so few as to be enigmatic, and most of them fail in the international capitalist marketplace.

Most of us, who are not involved in these business decisions, profit from them.  If you have a 401K, or any retirement plan invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, the success or failure of your retirement plan is based upon the actions of these amoral agents. It is unlikely that one would be willing to invest in a company where the primary motivation was not the desire to make money. Of course, there are so-called “socially responsible” investments. They comprise a tiny piece of the international market and are largely focused on ineffectual, relatively innocuous moral concerns, like recycling and “Green Building.” In that way, I suppose most modern companies and most modern people are as amoral as the House of Rothschild.

Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild. Volume One. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.

For a book review of Ferguson's The House of Rothschild, see: