“Greed is good,” said villain Gordon Gekko in movie satire. We’ve heard the word a lot lately. Greed is blamed for the recent financial crisis; it’s also invoked constantly in the health care debate.

What, exactly, is “greed”? Some even seem to think anyone with income or wealth above the average (national? global?) is greedy.

In its essence, greed means wanting more. More tomorrow than you had yesterday. More income, more wealth, and hence more of the good things in life that they can buy; as much as you can get. Every normal human being wants more; as much as possible; the best possible life. And that’s not wrong. In fact, it’s a very good thing. We might romanticize an idea of spiritual asceticism that eschews all desire, but really, a human who desires nothing is psychically dead. And the desire for more is what motivates all human enterprise, effort, and creativity. Without that, we’d still be living in caves.

How do you get more? Well, you can steal it. But that is wrong, and most people get more in a totally contrary way: not by impoverishing others, but by enriching others – by devoting one’s efforts to creating and producing things for which others cheerfully pay. Most of economic activity is not a zero-sum game where one’s gain is another’s loss. I recently paid a surprising sum for an art work. Was the artist “greedy” to demand such a price? I would not have paid it if I hadn’t valued her art work higher than the money I paid. The transaction enriched the artist – but enriched my life too.

Similarly, you can get more by working hard at your job, producing goods or providing services that enhance the lives of others.

Only if it’s fed at others’ expense is greed bad. But doing anything at others’ expense is bad per se. It’s not “greed” that’s the problem; it’s willingness to harm others. Of course, we do see that all the time. People behave that way because, sometimes, they can. The Wall Street guys who made off with huge sums did it because they could. It’s just silly to imagine some greed-free world in which people will forego money that’s theirs for the taking. However: human society is organized in such a way that that’s the exception rather than the rule. Most people, most of the time, get more for themselves by giving more to others. And that again is the fundamental driver of progress and improving conditions of life for everyone. In that way, greed is indeed more a force for good than for evil.

Maybe Gordon Gekko had it right after all.

One Response to “Greed”

  1. John Says:

    A greedy algorithm chooses each step by what brings it closest to the goal without consideration for subsequent steps. That often means a greedy path is far longer than a non-greedy path. Greed is about maximizing immediate return, potentially walking off of a cliff.

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