As higher earners tot up the damage of the budget deal, many of them can draw consolation from one bit of news. The 2013 deal doesn’t eliminate the charitable deduction. But maybe that particular break for plutocrats should go as well. That is the take-away from “The Good Rich and What They Cost Us,” a series of profiles of our rich countrymen down the centuries and their efforts to burnish their reputations with philanthropy or other gestures of ethical concern.

Robert Dalzell Jr. starts by calling attention to an indisputably American trait: respect for great wealth. Americans approve of wealth, Mr. Dalzell notes, “as a confirmation of the existence of equality of opportunity and thus democracy.” His second observation, likewise reasonable, is that our admiration for the rich functions as a kind of veil, hiding the rich man’s shortcomings from our eyes. Mr. Dalzell aims to pull back the veil, to expose the wealthiest philanthropists for the imperfect creatures they are. …

Was Rockefeller, Mr. Dalzell asks, a good and generous man? The answer is unclear, he says, “but by the end of his life he had come to act like one.” Similarly, Mr. Dalzell traces the origins of the so-called Giving Pledge that Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and other billionaires have signed in recent years, promising to devote at least half their fortunes to philanthropy. Their motives, Mr. Dalzell implies, are mixed, ranging from generosity to a desire to counter populist anger at the notorious 1%.