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.”
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.
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 – voila – more.
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.