Greed is Good

Greed, greed, greed. Seems to be the word of the decade. It’s blamed for the financial crisis, and for much else that ails us, and the planet. Bookstore shelves fill up with titles featuring the word; the Wall Street protests denounce “corporate greed.”

Wall Street Protests

Those protesters complain that the rich wield more power than the rest. As if there could ever be a society without some people accruing more influence than others. Certainly all socialist and Communist societies have had very powerful elites (and, in fact, masses far more powerless than in capitalist democracies).

But what, exactly, does this slippery word “greed” mean? Wanting more? Wanting too much? More than is reasonable? Than is fair? More than the other guy?

Every human being wants. Everyone prefers having more to having less. Even the hermit living on nothing in a cave – even he wants to attain something. And whatever it is he wants, whatever spiritual thing, he’d rather have more of it than less.

Yet some see wantingness as a curse, they strive to free themselves from it, to extirpate all desire. As though this could banish life’s turmoil and confer inner peace.

However, as any conscious being navigates through life – through each day, each moment – wanting is the central fact of existence. There is nothing anyone ever does that isn’t a manifestation of some want or another. That’s the universal motivator. If you could actually imagine ridding yourself of all desire, all coveting, all greed – you would be rendered immobile, with no impetus to do anything, to perform any action. You’d be in a black hole, dead spiritually if not physically (and dead physically soon enough).

So to live and breathe is to want. Now, you might say, once your needs are all met, you shouldn’t want more. How often is that heard? Well, think a moment. If your needs are met – just – you’re at risk that with any change in circumstances (and change is pervasive in life), your needs will no longer be met. Thus, to minimize fear (certainly another universal human want), one seeks a cushion for security – voilamore.

And, who (apart from cave hermits) wants mere minimal subsistence anyway, if you can do better? Why accept hardship if you can achieve comfort? Why be satisfied with gruel if you can have cake and caviar? Moreover, we are quintessentially social animals, caring deeply about our relationships with others; and so, why tolerate low status if the respect of higher status might be attainable?

That is simply fundamental human nature; and that, my friends, in its essence, is “greed.” Protesting against greed is akin to protesting against the weather.

And just think where we’d be without this elemental human motivator. We can have cakes because people bake them; caviar because people harvest it. Why do they make such efforts? Because they want more. The baker bakes because he wants caviar too.

You could even call it (many do, with a sneer) the “greed economy” because that’s the engine at its heart. Adam Smith’s most famous line was, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self interest.” Those tradesmen are feeding their greed. But to do so, they have to feed you!

That is the sense in which greed is good – motivating people to all the panoply of exertions that benefit society. The essence of a market economy (which its detractors never seem to grasp) is that A gains by doing something good for B, that B willingly pays A for, making both better off. If A gets something from B without making B better off, that’s cheating. If A’s greed impels him to cheat, it’s a bad thing. But cheating is always bad, and surely it’s not unique to market economies. The problem isn’t people wanting more (“greed”), it’s willingness to cheat to get it. In other words, the problem isn’t greed per se, it’s conscience, it’s knowing right from wrong.

But again the big point is that people wanting more and better is not in itself a bad thing at all, it’s a very good thing. It makes the whole world richer and better. Those who would banish greed think it would make a nicer world. It would actually make a vastly poorer one. Remove greed from human life and you won’t like the results.

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7 Responses to “Greed is Good”

  1. Lee Says:

    Those who decry “greed” are not against the “wanting” you describe; instead they decry what you might call “excessive greed.” They mourn the fact that there are those whose desire/wanting for a third yacht is stronger than their desire/wanting to make sure that a neighbor can put food on the table. Fortunately, even among people with many yachts, “excessively greedy” individuals are rare. For example, many of the well off who think that the taxes will be well used are currently espousing “tax me more” philosophies.

    Nonetheless, there are enough excessively greedy individuals in powerful positions that some decrying of excessive greed is called for. Historically, these excessively greedy people fought hard against the free-market-violating child labor protections, and so on. For any given issue, it is fair to debate whether it is more like the desirable wanting that you describe or it is more like the child labor exploitations that are worthy of our disapprobation. However, it is not fair to pretend that the latter category does not exist.

    [FSR comment: If someone does wrong to feed greed, the crime is the wrong, not the greed. No harm, no crime. As to the "third yacht," for most very rich people, level of lifestyle is not the issue at all; they see life as a kind of sport, and money is how the score is kept. That's why even a billionaire wants more.]

  2. Lee Says:

    But, take Enron. (Please!) The public uproar was the rolling blackouts orchestrated by deliberately making energy scarce, so as to drive up the price. (And there was something about being callous to “widows and orphans”.) But that’s just greed, not wrong, at least by legal standards. The only thing that put the responsible people at Enron in jail (well some of them; well one of them) is that people with that few scruples also cheated the investors by lying about losses; and that was actually illegal.

    Should we try to legislate moral business practices? That sounds perilous. But what are we to do to mitigate business practices that aren’t quite obscene enough to be illegal? The current Wall Street protest against excessive greed is sounding like a decent middle ground. However, if you can think of better approaches, sign me up!

    [FSR: The line "You can't legislate morality" is wrong. Law is about nothing else but morality. If something a business does is immoral, it should be illegal. If not, not. "Greed" per se is not immoral.
    I define "immoral" as doing harm to others without right or cause. Nothing else qualifies.]

  3. Lee Says:

    That is what the Wall Street protesters are protesting: “doing [financial] harm to others without right or cause”. They instead use the shorthand “greed” because it fits better on a placard.

    Instead of arguing the proper use of linguistics/rhetoric, I would like to see a discussion of whether the characterization as “harm without right or cause” is appropriate.

    [FSR: what, you want philosophy?]

  4. Lee Says:

    Sorry, what I wrote is confusing. What I would like to discuss is whether the emphasis on cutting the deficit over creating jobs, whether the rescue of the banks but not the homeowners, etc. represent economic “harm without right or cause.”

    [FSR: Banks are acting like the stodgy brainless institutions that they are in failing to modify the terms of millions of uneconomic mortgages, and the administration has done far too little to push them. Creating jobs: it's highly doubtful government can ever create jobs worth more than it costs taxpayers to create them. That doesn't help the economy either. Deficit: if we continue on our present path we become Greece.]

  5. bt Says:

    Fool, greed is always wrong,bad,evil. Your parents did a poor job of instilling proper values.

    [FSR comment: Thanks for pointing out how simple this issue really is.]

  6. ROW,ROW, ROW…Goals Update #22 (unfinished) « shanjeniah Says:

    [...] read Greed is Good, and am comtemplating a response in some form…it triggered a lot of alarm bells and [...]

  7. What Money Can’t Buy? « The Rational Optimist Says:

    [...] I’ve written before about greed. It may seem puzzling that a billionaire wants even more – how many mansions and yachts can one use? But that’s not the point. It’s the playing of the game; money is the scorecard. And wealth confers power and status, which humans are biologically programmed by evolution to crave – especially males, to attract more mating opportunities. (Aristotle Onassis said that if women did not exist, all the money in the world would be meaningless.) [...]

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