Tamara Ecclestone prompts a rethink of Capitalism

In the 1980s, Bernie Ecclestone invented Formula One and made a few billions pounds. He's now in the process of giving huge chunks of his wealth to his daughter Tamara.

In a very important sense, Tamara is putting the world's dominant economic ideas to the test. She's a kind of one-woman experiment in the virtues and vices of Capitalism.

We're so focused on what Capitalism does to the poor, we tend to forget to study with sufficient rigour what it does to those it makes rich.

The entire point of Capitalism is to free people to make money. But it says very little about how they might spend what they end of up making. This vital question is generally left off the agenda, lest it interfere with that prized political virtue: 'freedom'.

But a lot is resting on Bernie's freedom and ultimately Tamara's choices. There's a huge history of intellectual effort leading up to this father-daughter duo. Big 20th century economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman battled to show the benefits of markets to societies. Tamara is the fruit of these sophisticated moves. She is what success looks like for Capitalism. So how has she responded to her blessed situation?

Tamara's personalised Range Rover

Tamara bought a Ferrari, a Bentley and, recently, a Range Rover. She bought a spa for her dogs, a one million pound bathtub; a few drinks for her friends (they were reported to have cost 30, 000 pounds) and a large house in Kensington Palace Gardens, which needed a total refit - and now includes a conveyor belt to bring her handbags within easy reach. She's also been interested in showing her life to the world, with a documentary reality series and some topless shots for Playboy.

Tamara doesn't go around hurting people and she's been pretty active in charity (though for her to give 1000 GBP is like someone on an average income giving away 10p).

If you were to ask Bernie what he made his money for, a big part of the answer would be that he wanted Tamara to be happy. He's probably done that; all her material needs are catered for, and she certainly seems to have a lot of fun. But what about the rest of the money? What is its purpose? What should it be doing for the world?

Tamara got married.

We're so focused on shortages of money, we don't often consider how its occasional enormous surpluses should be handled. The deep problem of Capitalism is not so much that it leads to private wealth, but that it leaves it entirely to chance whether people do wonderful things with their advantages - or concentrate on motorised racks for their shoes.

In the 15th century, Lorenzo di Medici funded the Renaissance. In the 1920's, Catherine Drexel founded Xavier University in New Orleans, which played a major role in developing a black professional middle-class, with incalculable benefits to the US. In the 1940's, William Volker, who made a fortune selling household furnishings, funded a number of US think-tanks that eventually made a great contribution to the peaceful and successful ending of the cold-war. These were grand ambitions commensurate to extraordinary means. They also remain the sharp exceptions.

Perhaps a lot of the resentment against the rich is really a way of being justifiably angry, not at their money, but at their lack of purpose and imagination. Could a society evolve so that it paid attention not only to the opportunities for making money but also to the expectation that it be spent with equal intelligence and rigour? Arguments in favour of redistribution and against inequality are at least in part complaints about wasted opportunities.

It's the peculiar fate of Tamara Ecclestone that the meaning of Capitalism should be played out in the details of her luxurious and very public life. It's easy to snigger at what she has spent money on to date: seeing her waste her fortune reassures us that it was never worth accumulating in the first place. But, if we accept the basic premises of capitalism (and we do), then the real challenge is to work out what she should ideally go shopping for in the future. The purpose of capitalism will lie in the answer; it's a dilemma we'll be continuing to wrestle with in the near future.

To be continued.


The School of Life