The Curious Allegation of Capitalist Greed

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“worm's eye view photography of buildings” by Kyle Sudu on Unsplash

Plastered across the Internet and scrawled in the titles of a slew of think pieces on capitalism invariably appears the word “greed,” a pairing that inevitably conjures up a nefarious sheen.

More than any other accusation, “greed” reigns supreme as the primary sin of capitalism. In one fell swoop, capitalism is reduced to a human emotion, and a contemptible one at that. The charge of “greed” is akin to a crack in the windshield; it proves the most expedient and damaging attack, crippling the integrity of an economic system in one messy, brutish stroke. Like a swift blow behind the knees it is.

Is it not odd that the most formidable critique of capitalism in circulation today is that it is “greedy” of all things? I mean, how strange, really, to graft emotions onto a way of structuring an economy and to accuse it, essentially, of being ethically corrupt. This is worth remembering: Capitalism cannot really be accused of emotions because it’s merely a framework; not a person. It’s a simple skeletal structure; it doesn’t have a brain, a conscience, moral faculties. People have emotions — not economic systems. There is absolutely greedy, power-hungry, and what could be categorized as cold and/or heartless people in a capitalist system. But so there is the same exact people in a socialist system, supposedly the “nicer” alternative, the one trotted about as purportedly, the more humane and upright of the two. If it’s the people we’re talking about (and it is, because people introduce corruption, if we’re honest, not lifeless systems) no economic framework could possibly perfect that. If it’s people’s inclinations to exploit we’re having consternation about, no economic model will ever sufficiently correct this. Human nature cannot be perfected. Vice is certain, inevitable.

Knowing that greed is certain then, in a socialist system, greed doesn’t just disappear. It sort-of gets diverted into the political process. After all, the planned endeavor of taking from some and spreading to others is a weird way of claiming fairness. Is there not greed bound up in this too? To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, how is it that it’s greed to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money? How is the former greed and the latter benevolence? Both technically fall short of perfect equality. Inequality is inherent to free markets, after all, and we must live with this reality. (In a sense, if we are to have competition at all — the basis of any growth and progress — inequality is certain.)

In a collectivist approach, equality is manufactured and artificially produced. And such an undertaking is not worthy of being applauded for its fairness and moral reputation. Taking from some and giving to others is risky business. After all, where at do we draw the line as to who has “too much” wealth commensurate with their being accused of greediness? Who are we as fallible humans to claim the right to make this arbitrary judgment and to demand reparations of wealth? Where’s the logic in this? It’s like applauding a child for stealing — you wouldn’t do that.

With this in mind, all options may start to look bleak. But such a humble reminder of the flaws in human nature is important, for it illuminates the reality that there exists no perfectly optimized society, no flawlessly egalitarian utopia where things are all placid and peaceful and pristine. We cannot order ourselves out of human vice or general imperfection, you see. Though this belief that perhaps we could has proved incredibly beguiling over the centuries. A hunger for perfect order rests behind utopian projects.

Accordingly, collectivist enterprises such as communism and socialism are just these sorts of manifestations of hunger for order. However believably cloaked in the moral integrity of “eliminating inequalities” such systems are, there always lingers the necessary ingredient of order. And to coordinate order is no easy thing, and it inevitably requires a deluge of coercions to achieve. Socialism may claim to be about “care” but really, it’s about bludgeoning a society until it orders itself into some stiff, arbitrary model.

Free markets are built on cooperation and collaboration. Planned economies, on the other hand, are built on coordination and coercion.

One of the most vital components of capitalism is the reliance on the sovereignty of the individual. The individual is treated as the untampered-with crucial building block of the entire system. That the individual is untampered-with is absolutely necessary. In a free market, all the individuals contained therein are naturally incentivized and driven to explore the marketplace to meet their consumer needs and desires and also, to offer what they might want to sell, products and services and skills alike.

Capitalism, in a sense, is hands-off in relation to the human spirit. In capitalism, we do not pretend that it might be a good — or even possible — thing to infiltrate on the level of the individual and attempt to regulate the individual. Collectivist societies, after all, rest on the premise that wealth should be socialized, taken and redistributed from the hands of government bureaucrats. Does this action not smell of greed? And it is so because people have been allowed to meddle in the wealth of other people and to disrupt the freedom inherent in capitalism.

Capitalism is much like democracy, it’s a bulwark against tyranny. It recognizes the danger of tyranny and necessarily requires that people have liberty and the crucial element of choice. If anything, capitalism is a fairly decent solution for addressing the inevitability of human greed. The fact remains that no economic system in all of history was responsible for creating as much wealth and prosperity that capitalism so handily accomplished. It’s a miracle that we stumbled upon it and stuck to its principles long enough for its results to compound and its popularity to flourish.

Capitalism rests on the notion that we should not try to order the individual. There’s a sacredness to the individual and while seemingly an incongruent remark to make in an economic sense, it’s true in a more overarching, generalized sense. Self-interest no doubt is present in the bedrock. But is self-interest really greed? (This is, of course, the insinuation being made.) I don’t think so! A collective effort towards one’s own self-interest naturally — beautifully even — results in the rest of the pool of society satisfying their own self-interest. A competitive marketplace makes this collaboration possible.

Self-interest is plainly rational and hardly synonymous with greed. And yet, those that accuse capitalism of being inherently greedy must find something fundamentally wrong with human self-interest. But look at what human self-interest has achieved! Tremendous amounts. It is it that you should thank for the relative prosperity that we enjoy today. There is nothing nefarious about individual self-interest; it is the natural outgrowth of human freedom, it is the logical feature of a system of economic liberty. Were we to supplant our economic freedom to a cadre of higher-ups that might “benevolently” order the economy and our wealth for us, would the self-interest not merely shift? From us, as individuals, to them?

After all, it must lie somewhere and we must make a choice as to where the self-interest will lie, naturally distributed on the level of the individual, the basic unit of economies or in the hands of a powerful few. Why do we assume that in having humans — inherently fallible ones at that — shuffle around our money that this will stamp out greed? Why do we assume these higher-ups would be these paragons of altruism and all-knowing wisdom, capable of optimizing the economy in a satisfactorily equitable fashion?

What they call greed is probably just self-interest, a naturally occurring phenomenon in a capitalist society. What they call greed is responsible for progression and innovation. So, why are they so uncomfortable with it? Is it because capitalism is “unfair,” “inequitable”? Inequality, it should be noted, is not some artificially produced, evil consequence of capitalism. It’s ancient! It’s naturally occurring everywhere! It’s present in nature itself; you need only look around you. Where did we get this idea that capitalism disrupts something that was originally angelic, good, and pure? That’s not the case. We cannot stamp out all inequalities, and frankly, that’s a dangerous thing to be in pursuit of.

‘Greed” is a pernicious smear in the political arena. It’s an emotionally based charge and one that in theory, would be difficult to measure. How do you measure greediness, after all? And how are critics of capitalism the arbiters of greediness? And furthermore, why might these critics feel compelled to sneeringly cry “greed,” of all things? It is probably more probable that they are acting in your own self-interest in making this claim — and that’s a fairly uncontroversial observation I happen to think.

With that in mind, are these critics merely trying to grapple with envy? Maybe even paranoia — because capitalism is something akin to uncertainty? Because capitalism carries the threat of unpredictability, an undertone of chaos, the sensation of upheaval, is rife with fluctuations, and all these things can be to people psychologically discomfiting? These things — envy and paranoia as examples — are all quite human responses and are very understandable, no matter whether you’re an outspoken critic or not. I am merely suggesting that anger at American capitalism is probably not purely derived from intellectual, scientific arguments.

Make no mistake: Capitalism requires a leap of faith, a giving up of control to allow legions of people to act in their own self-interest and to trust that mutual satisfaction can be arrived at. On the other hand, it is a dangerous thing to distribute wealth to ensure equality of outcome; this encourages resentment to boil underneath the surface. Such reallocation also indicates no greater productivity in the economic arena and more importantly, is akin to stealing. Equality of opportunity is a noble aim to have precisely because it does not take from other individuals and equality of opportunity is historically best achieved in a capitalist system.

Self-interest is eminently rational, healthy, natural and — people forget this — is generally mutually beneficial. Self-interest empowers the human spirit. Additionally, profit furthers society; it is not evil and does not need to be atoned for in some kind of redistributive scheme. Now, is capitalism perfect? No, but it’s the best option we have. But to attempt to tear down capitalism with an insinuation that its original sin is greed? That’s the wrong way to look at it, in my opinion, though it is actually a quite telling indicator of leftist sentiment.

Complete equity is a myth and addressing all inequities is an impossible task. For capitalism to exist, we must keep at bay the inclinations some of us have to lust after utopia and perfect order. Perhaps it is true that perfect order in an economy and society — where greed is rendered impotent, absent — is possible. Academics — not to mention ordinary people — abound that are willing to put forth this notion. In theory, perhaps you could machinate an economy, but it would require extreme amounts of effort and coercion and draconian measures. It would be a horrifically destructive project and would kill the human spirit in the process.

After all, how do you think any manner of the life-saving, life-enhancing inventions produced in the past few centuries came about? Likely because the promise of economic gain beckoned and this natural motivation is an amazing thing.

We cannot play God in our economy, though it has been tried with devastating consequences. We can, however, hold the individual as sacred and sovereign. Greed is woven through every human heart and it is a mistake to assume that alternatives to capitalism will render greed vanished. It doesn’t go away — it merely is channeled somewhere else, into taking from others namely, and that’s a dangerous game. That capitalism’s most fashionable smear is that it is greedy is awfully telling but absolutely not the correct allegation to make.

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