Greed

Some random thoughts on free enterprise, expanded from a comment to yesterday’s post.

Does free enterprise, usually called “capitalism” because of Karl Marx’s influence, depend upon greed? No, in fact. The expression “it depends heavily on greed” is counterfactual in my opinion.  Consider:

If I want to make money in the free market, I must serve my fellow humans in a manner they find valuable. I can natter on about how much I want all day, and it will avail me nothing.

Only if they value the good or service or labor, and feel that it benefits them, will they ignore their greed and help me reach my goals.

All transactions in the free market, from paying or working for a wage, to inventing and selling a product, to providing a service from home cleaning or health insurance, is a win-win as long as it is a voluntary transaction by both parties and uncorrupted by government coercion.

Knowledge

The result of these win-win transactions is added wealth, innovation, and most crucially knowledge — knowledge shared, either directly or because it is built-in to the product, service or labor we provide each other in opposition to any greed we might feel.

The difference between how we live now and a thousand years ago, or a hundred thousand years ago, is knowledge. We are physically and mentally essentially the same over those time spans, but free enterprise has brought us into a new world to the great benefit of society.

The growth of knowledge happened despite government domination for millennia, and made slow, incremental progress. In China, for example, it was a capital offense for hundreds of years to know how a water-clock worked. As each dynasty was replaced, the ministers who could build and maintain the clocks were often simply executed. And they started over.

Knowledge is not just power, it is wealth and well-being. And it has been been the reason that governments and would-be tyrants like Marx and his disciples worked to concentrate knowledge into the hands of a few “masterminds” at great cost to society. And the proponent of these systems often describe them as “altruistic.”

Altruism

This is a tricky word. One can argue that true altruism doesn’t really exist, as all persons act as they feel motivated to do so. Some of these motivations have the approval of the societies they operate in, some don’t, and some are the result of negative PR campaigns such as the US government is currently waging against wealth/knowledge creators for political reasons.

If a man throws himself on a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers, we call it altruism, and it is eminently reasonable to do so. But he chose to do this because, in his mind, it was the choice his own motivations required of him. This should take nothing away from the man and the act; to have possessed, at least largely of his own making, such a mindset and motivations is noble indeed, and the act is astounding, heroic, and virtuous.

But it makes defining “altruism” a bit slippery.

Having money taken from you by the government so they can give it to others (often to buy votes) is not altruism. Campaigning to have a law created to take money from others to give to someone else (often to buy votes) is not altruism. This is the sort of thing Ayn Rand has argued against. And here, this government coercion blends into “greed.”

Greed and Envy

Envy can be exemplified readily enough: “My neighbor has a really nice car, and I want one.” This can be fine, it is a motivation … but what is crucial is what comes next, and it’s a distinction between the approaches of greed and free enterprise.

A “greed driven by envy” scenario: “My neighbor has a really nice car. That’s not fair; he shouldn’t have it so it should be taken away or he should be taxed more or maybe I’ll just steal it or damage it.”

Free enterprise fosters a different approach: “My neighbor has a really nice car. I resolve to work hard and serve my fellow man well and efficiently so that I can buy one, too.”

But the blend between greed and envy is fuzzy, it seems to me. Greed, in the absence of envy (in other words, an obsession with private accumulation)  seems actually rather odd. One can imagine a sort of “Scrooge McDuck” character diving privately into a pile of money but telling no one about it. Though I’ve never seen “Hoarders,” from my understanding the show is full of examples of people obsessively accumulating in the privacy of their homes. This compulsion to accumulate in the absence of public recognition seems likely to be rare — although it would be relatively unknown by the definition ascribed here. The producers of “Hoarders” can find them, evidently, likely reported by family members.

Such a compulsive drive to acquire, however, seems sterile … simply a mental disorder. What most people think of as greed is somewhat different, a public greed/envy mix that gets recognition and is driven by the recognition sought. In other words, the acts are engendered by envy and the desire to create envy. For most people who could be accused of being controlled by greed, it’s really envy that’s involved. Often in reverse as well: The person is driven to inspire envy in others, as in the song “If They Could See Me Now” from half a century ago and “The Wizard and I” from this century’s Wicked.

occupied

Envy is all too easy to generate in people; it is a common failing perhaps the most common political tool used to manipulate people. Several current political campaigns focus on it, the whole mantra of “the 1% versus the 99%” Obama campaign, echoed by the “occupy” movement, as well as the current leftist presidential campaigns, shows its power.

Now, there is a problem, and that is with crony capitalism. But this is a function of government; when they can pick winners instead of the free market and finance these choices with tax dollars taken from the population, their influence is suddenly a “product” they can “sell” and is thus the focus of lobbying and other influence-purchasing schemes. This is antithetical to, and destructive of, the free market.

The “occupy wall street” movement (I always write this in lower case as they hate capitalism) has itself been occupied by the Obama administration. Rather than focusing on cronyism and government corruption, which would be embarrassing to the administration, they merely consider anyone who is successful as automatically evil. (Amusingly, other leftists get a pass on this; hypocrisy is a common feature within leftist campaigns.) They through in a big dose of Jew hatred.

Most annoyingly to me, current political campaigns often impugn this cronyism, rightly, but in such a way as to blame it on the free market, which in their rhetoric is controlled by the “evil Jews.” The political motives of the administration and fellow leftists are abundantly clear, and their own practices bring cronyism about. Their association of government corruption as a product of the free market is false, and merely political misdirection.

Self-help

I must take strong exception to the idea that merely “helping yourself” is greed. Though I am not religious, it seems extraordinary to me that God would consider such a thing to be a sin. There are enough references to people expecting to do something for themselves, including the parable of the talents, that make it clear enough.

Amusingly, “God helps those who help themselves” is the most widely recognized Biblical phrase — though it is not actually in the Bible. The Bible does warn against idleness and encourage you people to help themselves by earning their own bread (see 2 Thessalonians 3 for example).

The notion that a person gets out of bed and goes to work to feed his family is merely being greedy seems very wrong to me. But he is helping himself and those close to him, and he is participating in the free market by offering his skills and effort for a wage, then using those resources to pay for food and other necessities. The economy, writ large, is merely millions of people like this writ large. And it makes it possible for people to help themselves, rather than be eternal dependents of the welfare state.

Helping-The-Poor

Luxuries

Consider your own life, and the luxuries you have compared to the huge majority of the world’s billions. Would they be justified in considering you greedy? And yet, your voluntary transactions, driven by an interest in yourself and those you care about, is part of a process that has reduced the number of people living on the equivalent of a dollar a day by something like 80% in a generation. Once-desperate and starving Chinese laborers begat millions of children who are now the world’s largest market for $10,000+ watches.

Perhaps those Chinese are to be considered greedy — but regardless of their motivations, their purchases add fuel to the world’s economy, create wealth, and continue to raise the standard of living worldwide. And an examination of their lives, and the effort many young Chinese are going through to educate and better themselves, might mollify your condemnation a bit.

I am not at all supportive of the Chinese government; that’s a different issue entirely. But the drive of many individual Chinese strikes me as admirable. (And years ago, I wrote a poem about China and our own government, which is suddenly relevant to today’s political campaigns.)

Exploitation

A volunteer at a church goes down to the local market and purchases supplies for the soup kitchen she works at. She is voluntarily participating in the free market. Can you really say that she is driven by greed, exploiting poor people for her selfish purposes?

Free enterprise has lifted more people out of poverty and misery, all over the world, than all other forces, institutions and religions combined. The popular mis-perception that free enterprise (the most powerful force for good in the world) is merely “greed” is disappointing, and this idea is being exploited politically in destructive ways.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

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