Mention capitalism and the average person will fire back with, “What about greed?” They assume that capitalism is founded on greed and couldn’t survive without it, or that it rewards greed so that people are much greedier under capitalism than under socialism. The mere accusation of greed is intended to shut the mouth of anyone who dares to defend capitalism. But these indictments rest on faulty foundations.
What is greed? Webster defines it as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Synonyms for 'greedy' include: acquisitive, avaricious, avid, coveting, covetous, grabby, grasping, mercenary, money grubbing, rapacious. The Oxford dictionary says, “Intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”
The Merriam-Webster web site claims, “To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it's used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.”
Obviously, the next question becomes, how much do we need? If we took the dictionary definitions literally, anyone who aspires to more than what a native in the bush of Zambia has would be avaricious because even the poorest African living in a one-room hut with no electricity, toilet or water has enough food to keep him alive, shelter from the weather and one set of clothing.
The World Bank claims that 700 million people live on $2 per day or less. That they are alive indicates they have enough to get by. Do we really want to say that they are greedy to want more? I don’t think that is what most people in the West mean when they accuse others of greed. After all, those in the poorest quintile in the US are among the wealthiest people on the planet and in history. Is everyone in the West guilty of greed?
In the middle ages, theologians waffled on the definition of greed by adding that people should seek no more than the wealth they needed to maintain their station in life, which kept the nobility from decapitating them. Seeking to improve one’s station in life was the sin of greed in medieval theology. So if you were born into the 20% who had to beg for enough food to keep body and soul together, you should be content.
Ancient Greeks and medieval theologians installed need as the standard for greed because they held to the theory of limited wealth: one person can gain only at the expense of others. In other words, the wealth of the world is fixed, like the pot in a poker game, and the winner’s money comes out of the pockets of other players. If one person ate a morsel of bread more than he needed to stay alive, he condemned another to starve to death because most people lived on the edge of starvation. They had good reasons for viewing wealth that way because the “honorable” methods for obtaining wealth were looting in war, kidnapping for ransom and taking bribes as a state official. That’s what the real robber barons did.
Capitalism consigned those methods of wealth accumulation to the dungeon and for the first time in history commerce became the respectable method after millennia of being despised. People produced new wealth for the first time and expanded the total wealth in the world without taking wealth from anyone else. The method of gaining wealth changed, but the definition of greed hasn’t caught up.
Dictionaries aren’t much help. I can only guess at what people mean by others wanting more than they need. They may make themselves the standard and anyone who has more than them is greedy. Or they may have a vague idea of an average for their nation and see anyone above average as greedy. Whatever their view of greed, it’s one of those weasel words that can mean anything or nothing and is no more than an insult.
May I suggest a workable definition of greed - the desire for wealth so great that one is willing to commit crimes to obtain it. That seems to be the Biblical view of greed, as John R. Schneider points out in The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth. God blessed Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job and others far more than they needed to survive and more than the wealth of others. God promised Israel a land flowing with milk and honey. That doesn’t mean much to us today because those grocery items are cheap, thanks to capitalism, but in Israel’s day they were luxuries few could afford. In other words, God promised Israel far more than people needed.
I understand that defining words is tedious. I appreciate any readers who have slogged through the article this far. I’m certain you’re all Republicans! But clearly defining terms is necessary today because socialists have spent 150 years monkeying with definitions so that their arguments win by default, but their definitions crumble under examination.
With a working definition of greed, does capitalism make a virtue of a sin, as the influential philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre insists? Clearly not. A culture that elevates commerce will admire success, which leads to wealth, but always with the caveat that business people earn it by serving others, that is, by providing the goods and services others desire. As the great Bastiat emphasized, capitalism is exchanging services for services. It excludes theft, fraud and violence.
Even more, capitalism works against greed, as Adam Smith pointed out. Competition between business people in the same market forces the greedy to service the common good or go bankrupt. That’s why business people often bribe politicians to pass regulations that restrain competition. Competition is a brutal taskmaster.
Those who insist that capitalism promotes greed err in a more fundamental way, in their understanding of human nature. Christianity has always taught the doctrine of original sin, which says that we are born with a tendency toward evil; no one needs to teach us to be bad. Any parent knows that. On the other hand, ancient Greeks and Romans believed that we are born with blank slates for morality and society inscribes its values on them. Perfecting humanity was as simple as providing the right instruction and legislation. Did they succeed? Clearly not! No more rapacious societies have ever existed.
Socialists adopted the ancient Greek and Roman anthropology, which is the reason they insist they can perfect humanity through the force of the state. History for the past 150 years has proven them wrong at every turn.
Greed is not good. Capitalism works to suppress greed as well as teach young people to act morally in their business dealings. Spurning the milk of truth as tasteless, socialists have decided to milk a bull.