In his younger days, Walter Lippmann wrote the following about Henry Ford. Mr. Ford, as you are all no doubt aware, was staggeringly successful, wealthy, and nuts. He devoted as much or more energy to spreading his ideals (a curious mixture of Jeffersonian pastoralism, pacifism, worship of industry, and rabid anti-Semitism) as he did to making cars. In hindsight, of course, we ask why someone with an 8th-grade education and innate engineering skills would think himself qualified to rebuild society and reshape Americans to conform to his theories. Said Lippmann:
We Americans have little faith in special knowledge, and only with the greatest difficulty is the idea being forced upon us that not every man is capable of doing every job. But Mr. Ford belongs to the traditions of self-made men, to that primitive Americanism which has held the theory that a successful manufacturer could turn his hand with equal success to every other occupation. It is this tendency in America which installs untrained rich men in difficult diplomatic posts, which puts businessmen at the head of technical bureaus of the government, and permits business men to dominate the educational policies of so many universities. Mr. Ford is neither a crank nor a freak; he is merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success.
He wrote that about a century ago and almost nothing has changed in the interim. We still elect rich people who appoint other rich people to do jobs about which they know nothing on the unspoken assumption that anyone who has made (or worse, inherited) a lot of money must be good at everything. The part about appointing people to university boards of regents and trustees based on wealth is something that I've covered before and is a bigger problem than most people would imagine.
One thing that has changed, however, is that the ultra-wealthy no longer engage in the kind of utopian social engineering schemes that were all the rage around the turn of the century. It was hard to find a robber baron or other holder of great wealth who didn't have some crackpot idea about remaking society based on whatever pet cause he (or more rarely, she) happened to have: vegetarianism, spiritualism, Luddite leanings, socialism, free love, worship of the soybean, etc. Today a more skeptical society – more skeptical about some things, that is – would brand these people insane in a heartbeat. Imagine Henry Ford's lectures about International Jewry today or Bill Gates talking about building a utopian community where everyone farmed cassava and lived in group quarters. That would be…weird. Hell, it was already weird in Ford's time. Look at the way candy magnate Robert Welch's one-man anticommunist crusade, the John Birch Society, transitioned from a small but relevant force to a tiny fringe group of complete lunatics to see how attitudes toward the eccentric obsessions of the rich have changed over time.
Instead, today's rich try to normalize their efforts at social engineering by explicitly steering them toward politics. Electoral politics and governing in 1920 looked almost nothing like they do today, and the ultra-rich treated the political world as a minor sideshow compared to the almost limitless power of the oligarchy. Whether it's the Koch Brothers' economic and political brainwashing campaign or the Gates-Zuckerberg-Everyone Else heavy involvement in "education reform" and charter schools, the rich express the same impulse to remake society in a different manner today. Some of it, certainly, is motivated by plain greed; lowering taxes, staying on top of wealthy-specific issues like the estate tax, and securing fat government contracts are all as important as ever to the people pouring money into the political process. Underlying it all, though, is that "primitive Americanism" Lippmann identified, the idea that he who is good at making money knows best about everything. That they've gotten more media savvy about how they do their paternalistic meddling under the guise of charitable giving or political activism does not change the motive.