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Greed Is Not Good, and It’s Not Capitalism

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Capitalism doesn’t need greed. What capitalism does need is human creativity and initiative.

After months of hearing the media and pundits pronounce the untimely death of capitalism, it did my heart good to see a recent Newsweek cover story challenge the familiar trope. The author, Fareed Zakaria, noted that this pessimistic pronouncement gets air time in the wake of every financial downturn. But in reality, capitalism, over the long haul, has succeeded far beyond any other economic arrangement in human history. If worldwide communism couldn’t destroy capitalism, why are we so quick to believe that some bad fiscal and government policies in real estate will do it?

Unfortunately, some copy editor entitled the otherwise reasonable article, “The Capitalist Manifesto: Greed Is Good (To a point).” This is one of the worst myths about capitalism. It was immortalized by the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” directed by Oliver Stone. Michael Douglas played ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko, a charismatic villain who insists that “greed is good.” Gekko was Stone’s scathing embodiment of capitalism, seductive and selfish to the core. And now, thanks to the financial crisis, Stone is working on a sequel.

More unfortunately, this “greed myth” (as I have called it) is often perpetuated, as it was on the cover of Newsweek, by the putative defenders of capitalism. From Ivan Boesky to the bestselling tomes of Ayn Rand, champions of capitalism have told us for decades that greed is good since it’s the great engine of capitalist progress. Even Walter Williams and John Stossel, two of my favorite free marketers, have used this argument in recent years.

Must we choose between capitalism and Christianity, or, more generally, between markets and morality? I think not.

The rhetorical problem with this approach isn’t hard to spot. Most Americans are at least nominally religious, with moral sensibilities shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible and the Christian tradition both roundly condemn greed, and “progressive” religious leaders such as Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis have used this to drive a wedge between otherwise conservative Americans and the free market. Campolo, for instance, has condemned capitalism as based on the “greed principle.” But are these critics right? Must we choose between capitalism and Christianity, or, more generally, between markets and morality? I think not.

The Virtue of Selfishness?

You might think that greed has been bound up with defenses of modern capitalism from the very beginning. You might recall Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, who famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Ayn Rand and others seemed to extend Smith’s point by treating greed as the basis of a free economy. There are connections here of course; but Smith never argued that greed is good. His view was far different, and far more subtle.

Adam Smith argued that in a rightly ordered market economy, you’re usually better off appealing to someone’s self-love than to their kindness.

First, Smith argued that in a rightly-ordered market economy, you’re usually better off appealing to someone’s self-love than to their kindness. The butcher is more likely to give you meat if it’s a win-win trade—if there’s something in it for him—than if you’re just asking for a handout. This is, or should be, common sense.

Second, Smith knew the difference between self-interest and mere selfishness. Every time you wash your hands or take your vitamins or clock into work on time or look both ways before you cross the street, you’re pursuing your self-interest—but none of these acts is selfish. Indeed, generally speaking, you ought to do these things. Greed, in contrast, is a sort of disordered self-interest. Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, always condemned it as a vice.

Third, Smith never argued that the more selfish we are, the better a market works. His point, rather, is that in a free market, each of us can pursue ends within our narrow sphere of competence and concern—our “self-interest”—and yet an order will emerge that vastly exceeds anyone’s deliberations.

That’s the problem with socialism and all sorts of nanny-state regulatory prescriptions: They don’t fit the human condition.

Finally, and most importantly, Smith argued that capitalism channels greed. He recognized that human beings are not as virtuous as we ought to be. While many of us may live modestly virtuous lives under the right conditions, it is the rare individual who ever achieves heroic virtue. Given that reality, we should want a social order that channels proper self-interest as well as selfishness into socially desirable outcomes. Any system this side of heaven that can’t channel human selfishness is doomed to failure. That’s the genius of the market economy.

And that’s the problem with socialism and all sorts of nanny-state regulatory prescriptions: They don’t fit the human condition. They concentrate enormous power in the hands of a few political leaders and expect them to remain uncorrupted by the power. Then through aggressive wealth redistribution and hyper-regulation, they discourage the productive pursuit of self-interest, through hard work and enterprise. Instead, they encourage people to pursue their self-interest in unproductive ways such as hoarding, lobbying, or getting the government to steal for them.

Adam Smith knew the difference between self-interest and mere selfishness.

In contrast, capitalism is fit for real, fallen human beings. “In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity,” Smith wrote, business people “are led by an invisible hand ... and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.” Notice he says “in spite of.” His point isn’t that the butcher should be selfish, or even that the butcher’s selfishness particularly helps. Rather, he argues that even if the butcher is selfish, he can’t make you buy his meat. He has to offer you meat at a price you’ll willingly buy. He has to look for ways to set up a win-win exchange. Surely that’s good.

So a free market can channel the greed of a butcher. But that’s not the only thing it can channel. It can just as easily channel a butcher’s noble desire for excellence of craft, or his desire to serve his customers well because he likes his neighbors, or his desire to build a successful business that will allow his brilliant daughter to attend better schools and fully develop her gifts. Capitalism doesn’t need greed. What capitalism does need is human creativity and initiative.

In searching for the “spirit of capitalism,” Max Weber argued almost a century ago, “Unbridled avarice is not in the least the equivalent of capitalism, still less its ‘spirit.’” The greed myth, he thought, was “naïve” and “ought to be given up once and for all in the nursery school of cultural history.”

Weber was right; and yet we still encounter it from critics of capitalism such as Michael Moore, and its champions like Ayn Rand. Let us finally be done with this caricature. We need cogent defenses of capitalism that are accurate and that appeal to the moral moorings of most Americans. “Greed is good” isn’t one of them.

Jay Richards is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem (2009) and a contributing editor of THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Richards regularly writes for THE AMERICAN’S blog.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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