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Monday, February 2, 2009

Is Greed Good?

“Greed is Good.” I heard that three times last summer from three different types of people. First from a socialist professor who said that capitalism is based on greed and when I challenged him, he said that greed doesn’t have to be bad. Really? The next day my marketing professor told an anecdote about her professor who wrote “Greed is Good” on the board on the first day of class and then told all of the students to watch the movie“Wall Street.” I told that story to some people at a free market think tank where I interned, and was surprised when two of them agreed and mentioned that a speaker who would be attending an event we were hosting wrote the book Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing. I don’t want to discuss the book or why he chose that title, but rather the idea that greed can be good. Is there a definition of which I am not aware? The definition of greed on is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed.” This is a poor and vague definition, because who decides how much is needed? A better definition of greed is a desire to take all you can. I cannot see how taking all that you can get can be good and it explains why I have never heard greed used to describe anything virtuous.

Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and while I am not religious, I agree that things like sloth and gluttony are bad. At the same time though, pride and lust are also deadly sins. Pride can be either good or bad depending on the level to which you are prideful. You should take pride in your work and be proud of your accomplishments, but when you become too prideful you become arrogant and pompous. Lust is not necessarily ever a good thing, but it is natural and can range from neutral to very bad depending on the level of lust. Is this the case with greed? Can greed be good or bad depending on how it is used or to what level? I have never heard it used to describe anything good. Being “greedy as a pig” comes from the pig’s voracious and disgusting eating habits. When you push your luck gambling and lose everything, people will say that you lost because you got greedy. Greed is the reason why Enron executives swindled their employees and stockholders. It is also why businesses lobby elected officials for special treatment and corporate welfare. Bernie Madoff was greedy when he ran a ponzi scheme and stole $50 billion. Greed doesn’t drive people to take more than they need, it drives them to take more than they earn.

In the discussion with my co-workers, they made the argument that greed is what drives people to be the best. To start the best company and to make the most money you can by providing the best service to your customers. They used it to express the rational self interest that drives all of us. They said that we are all greedy to do what is in our best interest and to make the most of ourselves. I argued that a better term for what they described would be ambition. While I believe that greed is the desire to take as much as you can and ambition is the desire to earn as much as you can. It is only one different word, but that one word makes all the difference. To take whatever you want, means that you would be willing to lie, cheat, and steal to achieve your goals. This makes a zero sum game in which one party wins only when the other loses. When you are ambitious, however, you work for what you get and you win only when you provide value to another. Both partied benefit. This is how they described greed to be good. Basically we were talking about the same thing, but they used the word greed where I used the word ambition. Rather than use a different word to fit their argument, they changed the meaning of the word. In the end, I knew what they were trying to say and it made sense. The problem with using a negative word to mean something positive is that every time you use the word you have to make sure that everyone understands the definition you are using.

My first thought is that the liberty movement is trying to do is what they always do when challenged by leftists, accept their premise and fight from behind. It has become the go-to argument for those on the left to call capitalists greedy. Rather than dispute the claim that we are greedy and say that we are ambitious (a term that most consider positive) we try to change the definition of greed from being a negative term to one that is positive. This seems to be a terrible way to market liberty and capitalism to a country that is becoming increasingly socialist due to its ignorance and apathy. Why would you take a negative word and intentionally attach it to yourself in the hope that you can make it positive?

After I considered it for awhile, I thought of another way that changing the definition could be beneficial. It is very difficult to change a word’s meaning, but once you do, you can control the word and destroy it if necessary. The leftists call capitalists greedy, so if we can make it meaningless, it would take the word from them. This is what has happened to the word fascist. It has been used in so many different, incorrect ways that it has become meaningless. Fascism is typically referred to as “right-wing.” Fascism is a leftist movement that is a slight variation on socialism. The simplified difference between socialism and fascism is that under socialism the government controls the means of production and redistributes wealth and property. Under fascism, there is private ownership of the means of production, but the government controls how it is used through regulations, laws, taxes, and intimidation. In the sense that there is still private ownership of the means of production it is right of socialism, but just barely and it is far from being “right-wing.” It would be like calling conservatism left-wing because it is slightly left of libertarianism. However, it became a term used to refer to conservatives and now is pretty much a term for general dislike of anyone in a position of power. The word is completely useless now in any argument, because it is overused and if you try to use it correctly to describe a person or policy, you have to spend the next seven years of your life explaining what fascism means and eventually you just give up. The left has also effectively changed the meaning of the word liberal to get away from calling themselves “progressive” and now that liberal is no longer en vogue they are going back to calling themselves progressives, all of this, of course, to hide that they are socialists and fascists.

If the left can destroy words that are harmful to them, why can’t we? If we can change the meaning of greed to something positive, or at least caste doubt in the meaning of the word, we could render it useless. It would reach a point where you would call someone greedy and they wouldn’t know whether to thank you or punch you. The problem is that while the left has slowly changed the meaning of fascist, they didn’t make it positive. They passed the negative term to the right and then over used it to make it meaningless.

Could embracing the word greed be helpful for capitalists or would it perpetuate the myths about capitalism already spread by the left? Could we successfully convince people that there is virtue in greed, or is this just another way to play into the hands of the left by adopting their terminology? Is this movement to make greed good a way to help spread capitalism or a way to justify greed by the truly greedy?

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