IN 1998 Peter Mandelson, a leading member of Britain’s then Labour government, said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” Today Lord Mandelson is more uptight; he worries about the rising inequality and stagnating middle-class incomes brought about by globalisation. His volte-face is typical of the global elite. The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, says that rising inequality casts a “dark shadow” over the global economy. A recent OECD report warns that rising inequality will be a “major policy challenge” for all countries.

In a new study, “Rich People, Poor Countries: The Rise of Emerging-Market Tycoons and their Mega Firms”, Caroline Freund of the Peterson Institute in Washington, DC, makes an important contribution to understanding this challenge. She draws a distinction between rich-world billionaires and those of the emerging economies, whose numbers have been rising at a faster rate. In 2004 the emerging world accounted for 20% of the 587 billionaires in Forbes magazine’s annual survey. By 2014 it accounted for 43% of the 1,645 billionaires on the list. In the rich world the share who were self-made, rather than heirs to a fortune, was fairly stable between 2001 and 2014, at about 60%. In the emerging world the self-made proportion rose from 56% to 79%.

Being self-made is not automatically a virtue. Some self-made tycoons acquire their fortunes through cronyish connections. But Ms Freund argues that the fastest-growing group of emerging-world billionaires consists of what might be called “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurs—people building or managing big companies that have to fight for their lives in global markets. The rise of this type of tycoon, she says, can be a healthy consequence of structural transformation and rapid development.

When economies expand quickly—as they did in America in the late 19th century, say—they develop big firms that produce concentrations of wealth but that also contribute to broad growth by pioneering productive techniques and creating jobs. Such economies lift up those at the bottom of the income scale as well as enriching those at the top.

Ms Freund scrutinises the lists of billionaires, excludes those whose wealth was inherited and then classifies the self-made billionaires into four categories: those whose wealth came from government concessions and other forms of rent; those in finance or property; the founders of businesses that genuinely compete in the market; and highly paid executives at such Schumpeterian businesses. She treats only the last two categories as real entrepreneurs. In 2001 just 17% of all emerging-market billionaires made it into this classification; in 2014 roughly 35% did.

Among the leading examples is Terry Gou of Taiwan, who founded Hon Hai, an electronics giant (also known as Foxconn), in 1974 with just $7,500. Its massive expansion on the mainland has made it China’s biggest exporter, with a workforce of nearly 1m. Dilip Shanghvi founded Sun Pharmaceutical Industries in 1983 with a $1,000 loan from his father. It is now India’s largest drugmaker, with 16,000 workers and a market value of $29 billion. Zhou Qunfei started out working on the family farm in Hunan and was then a factory worker in Guangdong before starting a firm that makes touchscreens. Ms Zhou is now the world’s richest self-made woman.

Her company, Lens Technology, employs 60,000 and is worth close to $12 billion. The American dream of going from rags to riches appears more achievable in developing Asia than in America itself, which seems ever more in thrall to vested interests.

The emergence of these goliaths is similar to the emergence of big companies in the United States and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, and South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. The comparison to America during the gilded age is particularly striking.

Chinese tycoons such as Jack Ma of Alibaba and Robin Li of Baidu, two internet giants, are becoming fabulously wealthy by learning how to serve a huge new market in much the same way that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller did with steel and oil. Tee Yih Jia Foods of Singapore has become a colossus of spring rolls by mechanising their production and improving marketing, much as H.J. Heinz did with sauces and pickles in 1890s Pittsburgh.

Where’s the anti-billionaire backlash?
There are significant regional variations in this happy picture. East Asia has the lion’s share of Schumpeterian billionaires, whereas Latin America still has a disproportionate share of inheritors, and South Asia and eastern Europe a continuing problem with cronyism. However, the anti-billionaire backlash that is such a marked feature of Western politics is, thus far, much less pronounced in the emerging world. This may be because emerging-market billionaires seem more dynamic: more than half of them are under 60 compared with less than a third in the rich world. But it is partly because ordinary people in the emerging world have been getting richer alongside the billionaires; in the rich world the masses have seen their incomes stagnate.

You can pick holes in Ms Freund’s arguments. The line between Schumpeterian and crony firms can be hard to draw in China, where the government exercises huge influence behind the scenes. And if a recent slowdown in emerging economies worsens, it may show that some entrepreneurial stars built their empires on sand. But if anything, she errs on the side of caution. She excludes financiers, even though they can also be wealth-creators; and heirs, even though some—such as Ratan Tata of India, who increased the value of the Tata group enormously—are Schumpeterians. Although cronyism is far from extinct, the emerging world has witnessed a big increase in the number of true entrepreneurs.

They are a symptom of economic dynamism, not a cause of rising inequality.