Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Morality of Greed

If you were to be completely honest, one of the prevailing themes you have grown accustomed to hearing is the idea that greed is inherently evil.  Now, I have to be honest:  As a Christian, I personally believe that it is my duty to seek first the Lord and His kingdom.  If I do this, all these things (my needs being met) will be added unto me.  So, for me, the byproduct of work is not primarily money.  The byproduct of work is, first and foremost, glorifying God through excellence.

That being said—if I seek Christ’s Kingdom first, there is nothing wrong with me also desiring to earn compensation for my work.  I cannot find any instance in the Bible in which desiring to be paid an adequate wage for ones efforts is wrong.  You might say, “But those greedy Wall Street guys are surely engaging in immoral behavior,” or “Greed is the root of all evil.”  Some of them probably are.  In fact, the very college academics that make that claim teach moral relativism, but when a banking executive actually exercises moral relativism in his work, he is suddenly immoral?  But Greed being inherently immoral?

The problem with this type of reasoning is that to make this case, one has to read social grievances into the Biblical text itself.  Jesus Christ did not come to give us a perfect economic system or to be a social agitator.  He came to cure man’s sin problem.  I do agree that Jesus talked about the impact of money, but I feel it comes from a different angle than just “wealth disparity.”  I think Jesus’ commands about money and not loving money have to do with what a person places ultimate value in.  Is your ultimate value your money?  If so, you are a slave to your money.  Is your ultimate value your body?  If so, you are a slave to your health.  Do you find your ultimate value in your financial success?  If so, you are a slave to work.

Our ultimate value should be found in Jesus Christ.  The Bible even says, “for they did not love their lives when faced with death.”  Our lives are not our ultimate value.  Neither is our money.

But is ‘greed’ necessarily evil?  Let’s look at it.  While we do so, let us remember that passionate issues require dispassionate analysis.

If you look objectively at definitions of greed, you will see that greed is very different from envy, jealousy, or covetousness.  It is different than materialism.  It is even different than greediness.  Greed is nothing more than seeing the furthering of one’s own interests as his primary motivation for work.  This goes against the conventional wisdom, without question.

So how can greed drive a person’s work?

Let us think about a few examples of this in real life:  Picture for a moment, a farmer in Idaho.  Can you imagine his days’ work?   Picture him getting up well before daylight, venturing out into a field—facing sleet, snow, and bitterly cold wind.  All this is done in order to harvest potatoes.  Because of his hard work, New Yorkers can have potatoes for dinner.

Now picture a Colorado cattle rancher.  He gets up well before dawn as well.  He feeds the cattle.  He breeds them.  He moves them from location to location so that they can eat greener grass.  His entire life is circumscribed by taking care of cattle.  He faces the dead of night, winter and snow, cold rainy mornings, and even the dry heat of the summer—all to make sure New Yorkers can have a steak next to that potato.

Here is the question:  What if New Yorkers—in their desire to have a steak and potato for dinner—had to rely on the inherent charity and willingness of ranchers and farmers to care enough about New Yorkers to send them steak and potatoes—rather than their desire to make a living for themselves?

I would be grieving for New Yorkers.

You see, in serving the interest of themselves, the rancher and farmer necessarily serve their fellow man.  Their desire to earn a living (greed) demands that they produce what other people want.

Our free market is driven by an imperative:  It is more profitable to serve your fellow man than not to serve him.  Adam Smith talked about these principles in his book, Wealth of Nations.  The free market system is essentially a moral one.  It depends upon supplying people with what they desire at a price that they are willing to pay for it.

This of course comes with risk.  What if the New Yorker doesn’t want to eat a steak or order a potato?  What if instead, he desires to eat bacon and eggs?  No one forces him to buy what the rancher has to offer.  Then again, no one forces the rancher to plant potatoes.  It is all about individual choice.

Similar to this is the idea that the free market works only because of trust.  When is the last time you bought beef at the supermarket and actually weighed it yourself to see if it weighed what the packaging said?  When was the last time you measured a 2-liter of soda to see if it really contained 2 liters?  In fact, we rely on trust all the time.  You dont carry around scales and measuring devices in your pockets.  It would cost too much.  It would take up too much room.  It would cost you convenience.  Trust is an important concept here.

Still yet, is an even more moral situation:  If I cut a person’s grass, and at the end of my work, he pays me 30 dollars; that is essentially a certificate showing that I served my fellow man.  When I take my thirty dollars and walk into the supermarket and buy steaks, potatoes, and sodas for my family and I to eat for dinner—the cashier of the supermarket basically says to me:  You want the rancher in Colorado and the farmer in Idaho to serve you?  How have you served your fellow man?  I then produce the certificate of achievement (30 bucks).

Wealth itself is nothing more than scarce information.  I have 30 dollars in my pocket.  If you just compare the cost of goods, you could say that my 30 dollars is worth much less than the food I eat at Applebees.  In fact, if I were to buy the same products that I will consume at Applebees, it might be half as much.  The problem is, I cannot consume 30 dollars.  It is only a piece of paper.  So, I exchange it gladly for something that is worth more to me than the money itself:  namely, food.  Because I am not in the restaurant industry, I do not have the skills, infrastructure, or the resources to make quality dinners.  I don’t have the extra time either!   So—for that scarcity of information, I gladly pay more than it is worth.

A thing derives its value by how much a person is willing to pay for it.

Consider this:  I walk into a supermarket and tell the manager I want a gallon of milk.  He charges me 3 dollars.  If that milk is worth to me more than my three dollars, and my three dollars is worth more to the manager of the store than the milk, we engage in a voluntary contract.  We voluntarily engage in a transaction of trust.  I trust he gives me a gallon of milk, and he trusts that my three dollars are worth three dollars.  I make him feel good and in return, he makes me feel good.  This is called a positive sum gain.  On the flip-side, if I were to walk into that same supermarket and hold a gun to the manager’s head and say, “Give me the milk or I will kill you,” I have just said, “If you do not make me feel good, I am going to make you feel bad.”  This is a zero sum gain.

In all of human history, there has never been an economic system prior to the free market that did not function without zero sum gains.  Most of recorded history notes looting, plundering, theft, and coercion as the norm.  The exception has been the free market system.  It is a system based on trust and reciprocity.

The rule among fallen men is theft.  The exception is voluntary trade.

These are all moral concepts.

Greed isn’t inherently evil.  It drives our transactions.  After all, what is wrong with wanting to better the lives of you and your family?  Even the most ardent socialists I know send their child to piano lessons.  Why?  They want the best for their child.

The contrast of greed is the idea of envy.  Picture this:  You work a 60-hour per week job sweeping floors at a Fortune 500 company.  One night while walking home, you see a large group of people who work at the company eating in the restaurant.  You pause and watch through the window.  The person driven by greed will think to himself, “What must I do to be where they are at?  What have they done that I haven’t?”  This might prompt your working so hard that everyone notices, taking night classes, reading more books so that you can pass a promotion test, or finding a new job at which advancement is possible.  Either way, these are healthy questions to ask.  The other view would say, “It is inherently unfair that they have what I do not.  How can I have some of what they have?”

Now, the political left is well aware of these two differing types of thinking. The conservative would usually reply to this man, “I am going to work to get you equality of opportunity; you are going to have to work to ensure an equality of outcome.”  The progressive, on the other hand would declare, “I agree with you.  It is unfair.  He only has his stuff because he stole it from you.  You deserve to be in there too.  In fact, if you vote for me, I will promise to take some of what he has and give it to you.  I cannot ensure equal opportunity, but I can ensure equal outcome.”

This is zero sum economics.

If you pick the pockets of Peter to pay Paul, you will always have Paul’s vote.

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