Andrew Carnegie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

Andrew Carnegie

by David Nasaw

Penguin, HK$160

Scots-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie is famed for his philanthropy; the sale of his steel assets to J.P. Morgan made him the richest man in the world, and by his death in 1919 he had given all his wealth away. Well, that's the history-book spin. David Nasaw has researched and written a biography that's unlikely to be bettered any time soon. His Carnegie is a very unpleasant man indeed. He opposed higher wages for his workers even as profits soared, because they would be wasted on food, drink and clothing. Better to give the money to 'public education', the philanthropist thought, so he endowed 2,800 libraries in his lifetime. 'Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving,' he wrote. Carnegie pursued a sort of 'socialist Darwinism', so was willing to help lift millions of people if they managed to reach his hand. His business strategy was simple: always use the latest technology, keep production costs low and profits high, and retain profits to snap up failing competitors when they go bust. If union workers didn't like wage cuts and 84 hour weeks, well, shoot them. Nasaw dislikes Carnegie very much, but his humanising biography suggests he likes him a little bit too.