What is greed?
Given the current political and social environment, I think this to be a pretty important question. When do we determine that someone is being greedy? I doubt it’s something that many people have stopped to question, even though many have had little restraint in referring to others in this manner.
Greed is often used to describe the rich, the 1%ers. The idea is that the few filthy rich have only gotten where they are out of their greed, and therefore the rest of man has suffered. Aside from the economic arguments about wealth creation vs. wealth distribution, I’d like to approach this question in a strictly moral sense.
The actions of the poor and the rich alike are derived from something very basic in human nature, the pursuit of self-interests. Almost everything we do is done out of self-interest. Whether we choose a higher paying job over another, or choose a lower paying job with better hours, we do these things because of our own personal desires and motivations. Even philanthropic activity can be viewed in this way. Ask a volunteer at a food kitchen, or the founder of a charity why they do it. Most often you will get some great answers that demonstrate the beautiful nature of human beings. But woven in to those answers is almost always a statement that goes something like this, “it makes me feel good to do _____”. Yes people are helping each other when they perform these activities, and they should in no way be criticized. But stop and ask yourself, would people be doing these things if they truly didn’t want to? If they didn’t somehow value spending their time volunteering over not volunteering, would they be at the soup kitchen on the weekend? The point is that while the person may not have physically benefited as far as third parties can tell, they internally receive some type of value in performing these tasks. Therefore they are in fact engaging in activity that fits their own individual self-interests and desires.
Now to the main argument…
When a rich person makes a million dollars one year, but sets out to make $5 million next year, many of our friends on the left no doubt might consider this greedy. If you’re saying to yourself “no, that’s not greedy”, then what about a person that makes $100 billion dollars one year and wishes to make $500 billion the next? Is that an example of greed? I’m willing to bet that the number of people who think this is a demonstration of greed has gone up from the previous example.
Now take a low income worker who makes $20k a year. When that worker goes home and wishes he could make $40k next year, is that greed? I’m willing to bet no one would regard this as greedy. However, the thing to consider here is that both the man wishing to make 500 billion and the man wishing to make 40 thousand are both acting out of self-interest. There is absolutely no difference between the two men as far as their incentives and aspirations. They may use that money for different reasons, but the betterment of their own person is the sole reason for their wishes.
If you think this is an unfair example, or you think that the low-income man’s aspirations for more wealth are somehow virtuous because of his lower income, then consider this. When many people around the world are suffering, or living on just a few dollars a day, is it now benign and virtuous for that man to aspire to make 40 thousand next year? For those of you fixated on equality, isn’t it a morally reprehensible act to want to double your own income, even though you already make a few hundred times what some people are forced to live on?
The point that is being made is that people act out of their own self-interest and incentives. The only qualifying factor that distinguishes between what is considered greedy and not greedy is the dollar amount, and that dollar amount is strictly relative. This certainly seems like a very insufficient way to assess whether someone is deserving of their wealth or not. And besides all of this, where is this imaginary cut off dollar amount? Who decides where that cut of resides? Taking a page from Friedman, “We’re never greedy. It’s always the other guy who’s greedy.”
What about when a rich business man lobbies congress, or sways politicians with money in order to enact favorable legislation? Now this goes far beyond the scope of creating wealth and enters in to rent seeking. This act should be regarded as wrong because it is in fact cheating by using the force of government to get a favorable outcome. The government has a monopoly on force, and using that force to your advantage is particularly dishonorable. No doubt this occurs in our present day politics, and we can all agree that this needs to end. But while the act is most certainly bad, we can agree that the business man is acting out of his own self-interest.
So using our previous example, what if the man making $20 thousand a year attempts to use government to his advantage? When lower income people vote for legislators promising to increase taxes on the rich and benefits to the poor, is that not the same thing as a rich man using the force of government to his advantage? In both cases, other people must suffer in some regard in order to benefit the people engaging in the rent seeking. Why is it considered morally repugnant when business men engage in this, but not when people wish to tax other individuals more in order to personally gain from it?
This is because the idea of greed is only relative to an arbitrary standard, and the people screaming about income inequality and economic fairness have a monopoly on the power to set these standards. Some might view the millionaire’s desire for 5 million as a qualification of greed, some might not. Most might assume the billionaire is greedy. But where does this line begin? Why are similar actions deriving from the very same pursuit of self interests considered to be on the opposite side of the moral spectrum? Why are middle class Americans like myself who engage in the pursuit of more wealth not considered greedy even though we make a considerable amount more than what is needed to really live on, or even what our fellow humans are living on.
These are the real questions that we need to be asking. The more we ignore this, the more we will decline into a society pitted against each other where we all suffer. Eventually we’ll all be equal but financially, physically, and morally poor.