The Universality of Greed

A fine line exists between the seemingly simple notions of greed and self-interest. It might be concluded that greed is a subset of the broader concept of self-interest. Alternatively, some may say that there is no difference between the two. Irrespective of the choice of definition, it is universally observable that human beings are driven by WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). With a very few noteworthy exceptions, we all seek, as the Austrian School economist Ludwig Von Mises summarized, the “elimination of personal discomfort.”

At a recent trip to the local high school track, I had occasion to observe an interesting set of father and son scenes. Both dads were teaching their sons to hit a baseball. The differences in the results could not have been more starkly different. While both of the boys were of similar age (about seven) and stature, one of them was pounding the ball into the outfield, and the other missed almost every swing. It was apparent, as it relates to their athletic ability, there was a disparate allocation of giftedness. If the game was changed, and the object was shifted to art or academics or whatever, the results would likely have been much different. But the point is the same. We are each born with a wide variety of aptitudes, interests, giftedness, personal attractiveness and assorted other abilities…and liabilities

This picture is an almost perfect metaphor for the underlying problem faced by every society in every era. No matter where we look, we find something that appears “unfair.” Someone else possesses something of value that we do not. And even though we all know we are possessors of other important “things,” the perceived lack of parity is natively and deeply bothersome.

This bit of reflecting brings us to the recent activities of the Occupy Wall Street throng. While it is difficult to determine any level of coherent message coming from the group, the word “greed” seems central to their posturing. This same greed theme was echoed in a question that came from the Washington Post journalist at a recent Republican debate. The essence of the question was “Isn’t it a problem that no Wall Street executives are in jail over the financial meltdown?” The inference was apparently that greed has now become a crime punishable by imprisonment. That the banking and securities regulations allowed for forty-to-one leverage on A-tranche CMOs (backed by residential mortgage debt) is apparently (at least in the retrospective view of this journalist), irrelevant. Something “bad” happened and therefore someone must be jailed. The crime was greed. Justice must been served.

One thing is clearly certain: If greed is now a crime, we are going to need to build a bunch more prisons.

The beautiful thing about the rule of law is that greed is never on trial. And it can never be on trial. If it were, we would all be in jail. Self-interest, to the point of something resembling greed, is in our very nature. The pursuit of self-interest is what brings satisfaction to our lives. Our ability to pursue our own very personal ends, consistent with our native gifts, abilities and circumstances, is the pure manifestation of personal liberty.

If the Occupy Wall Street protestors were incensed with perceived or real corruption, or the obvious violation of laws, or even some type of “abuse of power,” the situation would look very different. If they could actually defend their case, it might even lead to meaningful and positive change. My sense is, however, that if the protestors were offered a pot of money to just go away, they would abandon their current quest in a nanosecond.

Systems of economic social justice that focus on greed (and protests with similar themes) are always doomed to fail. And they fail because they always end in some type of war, broadly defined. When the attention of a society becomes fixated on economic outcomes (and economic disparities), and not those things that bring about true quality of life, major trouble is right around the corner. When the focus of life becomes not “what each of us has,” but rather “what the other guy has” we enter a mindlessly downward spiral. 

It is exceptionally important to work towards a just and equitable system of economic social justice. The place to start in that endeavor, however, is not with an overpowering emotion – our indomitable sense of unfairness in the face of the general “riches” of others. Rather, the place to start is in a much more practical approach to lifting the overall quality of life of the most economically powerless amongst us.

The personal responsibility-based capitalistic systems of economics are certainly flawed, at least in part, by their reliance on self-interest. But they meet the objective of best serving the interests of all the participants, including those who start with very little. The greed-based systems supported by liberals and progressives are always completely flawed, as they have been proven to bring universal misery. They meet the objective of personal equality at a price that no one is willing to pay.

When greed becomes the motivator in any political and economic debate, the result is always lose-lose. The Occupy Wall Street folks should be more focused on meeting the needs of real people (of whatever description they chose), than on the perceived character flaws of a narrowly selected group of capitalists. They happen to share the same flaws as their alleged tormentors.

About the Author

Mr. Nygaard is a Managing Director with Atticus Advisers, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia.


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