Wow I haven’t posted in a while. That’s partly because I haven’t heard anything that’s really sparked a desire to write an article, but mostly because I’ve been busy taking advantage of stress-free enjoyment before fall semester preparation goes into high gear.
So I’d thought I’d take this opportunity and talk about something fundamental in the capitalist and anti-capitalist camps: greed.
Greed is one of those things everyone thinks they know what it is. We usually say it with a sneer. It is the attribute of evil and detached people who care nothing more than indulging in their vice. For many anti-capitalists, greed is the lifeblood of the free market demon: the binding force that ties in all arguments against capitalism. Like money, it is the root cause of all evil.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no set definition of greed. From economists to ecologists, from pundit to pop culture, greed means different things. Generally speaking it hinges on two distinctions with concern to material wealth: the nature of the desire and the relative value of the object in question.
For most, the first characteristic is about wanting (as opposed to demanding). Massive pillars of popular morality, such as Jesus and Gandhi, believed wanting of material things was being greedy and therefore evil. Greed as a matter of want is generally accepted as a signature aspect.
But you are not being greedy just because you want stuff. Both modern and ancient philosophers concluded that want is not always bad. A person should not be condemned because they want food or shelter in order to survive. Thus greed is sometimes equated with “want beyond need.”
This of course means that everyone—including all members of the Catholic Church—is going to hell. Surely there are scant exceptions but can you not think of anyone that does not desire beyond basic food, shelter and clothing? Even the poorest of people want to do more than merely survive.
Modern society has tacitly understood that want beyond need is inadequate so we have adapted the meaning in two different ways. First, we define greed as want beyond what’s earned. If Bob earns $50,000 a year but wants $100,000, he is being greedy. This line of thinking carries problems. Someday I would want to earn a six figure income, even though I haven’t done enough yet to justify that income. Am I being greedy because I set goals? People shouldn’t be deterred from desiring a better life just because they can’t justify it instantly.
Conceivably, protectionist pundits and anti-capitalists understand that people wanting to do more with their lives is a good thing, as long as they are of a sympathetic people. Few would call small businesses and middle class folk greedy the same way corporations and billionaires are. In the mainstream context, greed is set aside only for certain classes. It is want beyond what’s accessible to most people. Whoever “most people” are remains dubious, for the line between the well-off and the wealthy is a matter of context and perception. Thus it is perfect for popular media because the “greed” label can be applied to anyone as long as you juxtapose them with someone who isn’t as successful.
It appears that the popular belief of greed only applying to certain groups (and the desire to be like that groups) stems from humanity’s ancient roots. The rich were those of kings and knights and merchants that curried favor with the ruling class. The greed was often truly evil because they did not merely want more than they deserved, they took it by force if their threats were not taken seriously. Demanding what’s owed (whether it is beyond need or beyond the masses) is certainly not evil, but demanding beyond what’s earned is the hallmark of tyranny.
Modern thinkers get confused. Taking what you do not deserve is a zero-sum game, one with a victor and a loser, gain and loss. For thousands of years this was how most fortunes were amassed and often thought of the only way they could be cultivated. It was greed and because it was at the expense of others; it was a sin.
Yet today, citizens and firms hold greater fortunes than was the richest of kings. Almost as a reflex, we equate them with those nasty tyrants without ever stopping to remember that the people—for the most part—bestowed the wealthy’s fortunes on them. It was amassed through voluntary exchanges and thus pleasing to both parties.
If we constrain our definition of greed to merely taking unearned property, then it is always evil. But if we accept more popular perceptions—greed as desire beyond need or as the want of excess—then we have to acknowledge it is not always immoral. In fact, the rewards of wealth are a power motivator that makes society as a whole richer and happier. That is the hallmark of a positive sentiment: surely greed can be ethical as well as evil.