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Thoughts on Greed

/ 5 min read

I see a lot of folks arguing that they don’t like capitalism because it “rewards greed” or something like that. Not always sure what the point is.

”Greed” is bad, I guess. It is, after all one of the Seven Deadly Sins. (So is envy, but we’ll leave that for another day…)

I googled “define greed” and got:

“intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”

Okay, that does sound kind of bad. But is it? Take “power” out of that, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a totally bad thing. Don’t we all wake up everyday trying to make life better by increasing our wealth and making sure we have enough to eat?

What is the word for “wanting a better life — more wealth, security, and meaning — for me and my family?” I’m not sure we have a word for that. I think that is a natural, healthy impulse that often gets thrown in with “greed.” There should be a word for that.

So if that is how we will define greed, then maybe everyone is greedy. We all want to have enough food, clothing, and shelter. We all want nicer things, to be safer and more secure, and to have time to enjoy life. That’s kind of a constant universal, no? I guess it may depend on the level of intensity and selfishness.

But I guess that’s the word we use and are kind of stuck. Oh well. Open to a better word here.

And that is kind of what I like about Capitalism. It takes this (allegedly) bad thing — the natural impulse to make one’s life better — and turns it into something good for everyone.

Capitalism has the benefit of taking that constant — greed (however you define it…) — and leveraging for the good of others. The best way to express your “greed” in capitalism to to create something that people want to willingly pay for. Actually, that’s basically the only way to succeed in Capitalism — create something that someone wants. If you don’t do that, you will go out of business in short order.

So some further thoughts on all this:

  • Capitalism isn’t something that is enforced or created by law. One doesn’t impose capitalism. It just spontaneously happens when people are free and the rule of law is established. Left to their own devices, people will figure out a myriad of ways to generate value for others, and profit from that. Maybe the dry cleaner down the street is “greedy” for running her business, but I appreciate her service nonetheless. The only way to prevent capitalism from happening is to forcibly oppress it.

  • There is nothing inherently greedy about wanting to make a lot of money by providing a lot of value. Being super wealthy is not prima facie evidence of greed. As noted, greed isn’t going away. Wanting to improve one’s station in life isn’t going away. But even the former isn’t bad if one goes about being “greedy” by building a better mouse trap.

  • Many people genuinely want to improve the world. For example, I see many startups these days working on carbon removal and storage. This will improve the world. And yes, people will make money doing it. Maybe a lot of money. I think that is good. People who make the world a better place should be rewarded.

  • The thing that people often don’t seem to realize is that generally folks won’t apply their ingenuity and time to something that they won’t be rewarded for. Sure, there are some who genuinely don’t care about making money and do good in the world.That’s great. But even they have to put food on the table. But is it greedy to want to improve the world and make money as a result? Isn’t money a great motivator to do good in the world? Yes, yes it is

  • In order to solve big problems, there needs to be all kinds of people trying all kinds of things to figure out what they best way to solve the problem is. Capitalism not only allows for that, but actively incentivizes people (greed again!) to do it. That seems really good to me.

  • And of course, often, to really change the world, you need to expand the resources available to you, and profits are the best way to make that happen. If you make a profit, it means you have added value. Profits can then be reinvested to expand a firm’s ability to go good in the world. Are you greedy to want to do that?

  • Someone is going to point to out some example of greed turning into fraudulent activity. And my response to that is that I think it is one of the primary functions of government is to ruthlessly police and punish fraud. Fraud should be prosecuted and punished swiftly and severely.

  • Some people are greedy in the “I have to have more, more, more!!” sort of way. That’s true, for sure. But again, the only way for these people to do that is to provide value to society. They won’t get richer if they don’t. It’s really all pretty simple.

  • Finally, I would never presume to tell another person what they need to feel safe, secure, and whole. “Enough” for you might not be “enough” for someone else. I think it’s wrong to tell someone else what “enough” is.

So in the end, it’s not entirely clear to me that “greed” is bad. I guess it depends on what you mean by the word. If there is a better word for that natural human impulse, I’d like to know it. I can’t think of such a word right now.

But if you can take something that is going to happen anyway and leverage it for the benefit of others, well, that sounds like a big win to me.