A few years back, Time magazine ran a cover story about greed. Though it possessed many flawed premises and opinions masquerading as facts, it prompted me to reflect on this perpetually misunderstood subject.
Among other things, the Time article stated, “Of all the impulses in humanity’s behavioral portfolio, ambition — that need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone else gets it — ought to be one of the most democratically distributed. Nature is a zero-sum game, after all. Every buffalo you kill for your family is one less for somebody else’s; every acre of land you occupy elbows out somebody else.”
This is the age-old myth of the fixed pie. It assumes not only that the size of the pie is fixed, but that there is only one pie. In truth, of course, there is no limit to the number of pies that can be baked.
The only way to stop the entrepreneur from baking more pies is through government force. Lacking that, he will continue to bake more and more pies that he believes people will like — and buy — and everyone will benefit from his “selfish” efforts.
I feel morally obliged to temporarily sidetrack myself here, because this kind of wealth-redistribution rhetoric is precisely what deters the underprivileged from doing the very things they need to do to lift themselves up. Ignorant, left-wing college profs have been teaching this kind of gibberish to malleable-minded college kids since the days of the Greek Empire, while at the same time shameless and/or ignorant politicians have been brainwashing the parents of those same children.
In truth, any honest, half-intelligent individual in this day and age of highly visible entrepreneurial wealth creation certainly realizes that neither nature nor business nor life itself is a zero-sum game. In every country where the zero-sum game has been played out, the results have been catastrophic.
The list is a long one and includes, among others, the former Soviet Union, Albania, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Mozambique. And every country on the list has three things in common: torture and suffering for the masses, special treatment for the anointed privileged classes, and failed economies. Unfortunately, Western societies seem intent on following the loud voices of the zero-sum-game crowd down an egalitarian path that leads only to the destruction of wealth.
What these hollow heads cannot seem to grasp is that those who create wealth almost always do so by creating value for others. Or, to continue the metaphor, they increase the size of the pie. That’s why the poorest families in the U.S. have the means to buy state-of-the-art, flat-screen television sets, iPods, video-game consoles, computers, smart phones, and an endless array of other electronic products that are strictly discretionary in nature — i.e., they are not necessities by any stretch of the imagination.
The dictionary defines greed as “an excessive desire to acquire more than what one needs or deserves.” Asinine. I guess I’m not smart enough to understand who has the wisdom, let alone the moral authority, to decide what anyone else needs or deserves.
Since the words “excessive” and “more than what one needs or deserves” are subjective, what greed really means is possessing a desire to acquire. And, though it may ruffle the feathers of many idealists to hear it, the reality is that all human beings have an unlimited desire to acquire.
One person might desire to acquire power over others by leading or joining a crusade. Another person might desire to acquire material wealth by providing products or services that people are willing to purchase from him. And still another individual might desire to acquire the respect of others through artistic achievements. In any event, all of these people are “greedy” in the sense that they “desire to acquire.”
Though the audience was set up to hiss and boo when Gordon Gekko (in the 1987 film Wall Street ) spewed out those now-famous words “Greed is good,” the fact is that he was absolutely right. Or, at least, he was conditionally right. Greed is good if it leads to honest wealth creation.
In other words, greed is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It is only the methods that a person employs to fulfill his desires that are good or bad. Just as guns don’t kill people, neither do greed or ambition, of and by themselves, harm anyone. However, some people do choose to use greed and ambition to do harm, just as some people use guns to kill.
So long as you do not use force or fraud to acquire what you desire, you do not need to apologize for being “greedy” — and certainly not for any success you are able to achieve. And, as an added bonus, through the invisible hand of the marketplace, every dollar you make benefits society as a whole.
I strongly suggest that you not allow anyone to intimidate you into thinking otherwise.