Greed is blamed for many human problems. Again and again, you hear people citing greed as an inescapable and fundamental aspect of human nature that results in disregard for others, injustice, theft, environmental destruction, conflict and suffering. But is greed really to blame?
First, let’s look at the commonly accepted meaning of the word greed.
The Cambridge dictionary currently defines greed as: “a very strong wish to continuously get more of something, especially food or money.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”
What is greed?
If we dig deeper into these definitions and examine our understanding of the concept I suggest to you that it cannot possibly be a cause of the things it is blamed for. I propose that greed is a widely misunderstood concept because of some very common errors in thinking. Namely; definition by nonessentials, not observing cause and effect, not thinking in principles, and not thinking in fundamentals.
Firstly let’s note that greed is a form of behaviour. When someone is judged as being greedy they are doing something. What are they doing? Well, they are generally gathering to themselves resources or values. And their action is judged to be in excess of what is reasonable. Food is a primary and essential value. Money is a store of value that can be used to exchange for any other values or resources. And in this context power is the ability to harvest values from others.
All of the generally cited forms or manifestations of greed have the common denominator of people gathering values or resources for themselves. such as; taking more than they appear to need, or more than their fair share, without regard for others, often at the expense of others, perhaps by dishonest means, etc.
But why do people wish to gather values? Why do they want to harvest or collect or accumulate food, money and power? What is motivating this choice of behaviour?
What are the fundamentals?
To answer this we have to get to the fundamentals. Humans need values to live – air, water, food, shelter, clothes, transport, etc. We need values to sustain our lives. In the same way that we are hard-wired to procreate, we are hard-wired to create or otherwise acquire/gather values. So this behaviour in and of itself cannot be considered wrong or irrational.
Observe that the values we humans need do not just appear in nature. With the exception of gathering some foods that may grow on trees, values generally need to be produced. This requires thought, planning, effort, time plus the resources to be transformed by human intelligence into the things we use and consume.
So we need values, but they do not just land in our laps. We must create them or otherwise earn the equivalent value in order to buy them from someone else who has produced them. Life is a process of self-directed and self-sustaining action towards a goal. To sustain life we must exert effort.
Selfishness – another widely misunderstood concept – is often thought of as an associated “evil” that is inextricably tied to greed. Selfishness is a concern with one’s own interests. Consider first that wanting to live is ultimately selfish. To breathe is supremely selfish. It is only when people add irrationality into the mix of the behavioural motives on top of self-interest, that we begin to see undesirable and negative actions falsely blamed on selfishness. Very often apparently selfish behaviour is nothing of the sort. Alienating others is not in anyone’s self-interest, sacrificing others to self is not in anyone’s self-interest, dishonesty is not in anyone’s self-interest, barging in queues and trampling over others is not in anyone’s self-interest, etc. So we need to modify our definition of selfishness to “a rational concern for one’s self-interest”.
In essence, there is nothing wrong with acting in your own rational self-interest, and there is nothing wrong with gathering values, per se. So we must dig a little deeper to separate the issues and to understand why this form of behaviour we call greed is practised. Note that we are looking for fundamental principles here, we are looking for base principles at the core of what motivates human action – for survival. All of the examples you can think of to justify your (programmed) belief that greed is the problem need to be examined with respect to fundamental principles. Furthermore, each example you cite to justify your belief in greed as a causal problem will be context-specific.
Chosen or reaction? And what is primary?
You must also bear in mind that most human behaviour is not consciously chosen. It could be, and it should be for the “conscious individual”. But most often behaviour is a reaction to specific perceived circumstances, needs and/or values. In the context of predominantly unthinking populations, thoughts and therefore values, and therefore behaviours, are induced or controlled through propaganda coming from a carefully controlled mainstream narrative. But the point is that there can be a wide variety of causes for any behaviour.
- People overeat due to many contextual reasons – starvation, poverty, food addiction, fear of scarcity, emotional problems, etc.
- People desire to be seen as successful, pursuing big houses and flash cars, due to many contextual reasons – psychological insecurity, falling prey to ubiquitous marketing messages, lack of independent thinking with respect to choosing values, etc.
- People who seek power over others are practising a form of parasitism. Again due to a variety of contextual reasons. Although of course, they won’t identify it as such. Power gives them the ability to acquire values and resources without effort. It is seeking the un-earned. It’s not surprising because it is systemically encouraged in our current political culture. As long as governments provide a trough of “free stuff” this state of affairs will continue.
The takeaway point here is that these behaviours are not primaries, and therefore they explain nothing. Greed is not a primary it is a result. It is the downstream effect of people’s natural behaviours in very specific circumstances.
Is greed a dysfunctional behaviour?
Is it irrational to want to sustain your life? Of course not. If you are starving and do not know where your next meal is coming from it is perfectly rational to stuff your face with ‘more than you need’! If you are not particularly wealthy and you find yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet, is it irrational to overeat? No, it’s not. You are motivated (perhaps unconsciously) by a predisposition to store food supplies in times of plenty. You grab it while you can, and in certain circumstances this makes sense. Therefore it is the circumstances that are primary and an inducing factor that stimulates the behaviour. But the circumstances in which people are greedy do not occur in nature to any great extent, and certainly not a harmful extent. If as a hunter-gatherer you stumbled upon a tree heavily laden with fruit that you knew would not last long, or you could not preserve it, you would necessarily overeat in the short term in order to make use of the ‘find’. Overconsumption is not necessarily wrong or irrational.
Is it wrong to want more?
Is it wrong to want to get a washing machine instead of using the river to wash clothes? Is it wrong to want an electric tumble dryer instead of doing the daily toil of hanging your washing out? Is it wrong to want a larger house or even a second house to rent out? Is it wrong to want to drive in comfort and enjoy a nice new car? Is it wrong to want to earn more money, to store more value, and to be able to exchange that value for more tangible things that you and your family can enjoy in the pursuit of a better life? Is it wrong to want to improve your lot, to accumulate wealth? The answer is, of course not.
You have been programmed to see it as wrong, but in fact, it isn’t. You have been told that materialism is bad but this is a duff steer inherited from mysticism and religious dogma. In fact, you need values in order to live. You need clothes and cars and computers and houses. and people rightly wish to improve their life circumstances all the time, so as to enjoy the living experience through the achievement of values and goals. The religious assertion that a life of sackcloth and ashes is somehow morally superior must be questioned in order to see it as false. When you really think about it, this kind of moral assertion serves to keep the slaves happy with their lot and prevents them aspiring to a decent human life.
Secondly, many people incorrectly assume that wealth is a zero-sum game. This means that if you have more, someone else has less. It suggests that there is a finite amount of cake that must be shared out fairly. But this is not true. Wealth is created, and the accumulated wealth of each person benefits others. Read “Economics in one lesson” by Henry Hazlitt for a quick course on the fundamentals of economics to bust this and many other economic myths. Here is a free PDF version. leeconomics.com/Literature/Henry Hazlitt Economics in One Lesson.pdf
Another significant error is thinking that the acquisition of any particular thing or material possession will achieve happiness without regard to why it is desired or for how it is achieved. For a start, pursuing values chosen by others achieves nothing and is the product of an inability to independently select one’s own values and determine one’s own actions. The idea that ‘things will make you happy’ has some truth in it. But it is not the complete picture. It is also symptomatic of a whole bunch of other psychological problems that can result in the irrational accumulation of things and is often labelled as greed. How desires are achieved is also important and is a fundamental determining factor in the concept of greed and happiness. If you work for something it brings happiness and you won’t overindulge in it, but if you steal it or you do not have to pay for it the situation is very different.
Wanting more is not greed, it is natural. It is the human drive that pushes us to create more and more, to earn more and more, to make things better and better, and to enjoy the process. Indeed the achievement of happiness is rooted in the process. The question is, how is more obtained?
Grabbing the un-earned
If there is a bunch of free stuff that has “fallen off the back of a lorry” everyone will help themselves in an unrestrained manner because it is not costing them anything. Free resources or values are available for the taking. If you are being bought dinner at someone else’s expense you are generally more likely to consume more and choose more expensive dishes than if you are paying your own way with money you have earned by your own efforts. Everyone tucks in at a free lunch.
Similarly, if you have bought an all-inclusive holiday in which the food is included you will make sure you get your ‘money’s worth’, and the more you eat the better ‘value’ you will perceive that you have obtained – naturally. Because you have ‘already paid’, and the price you paid is low if you consume more and high if you consume less.
The context determines the appropriate behaviour with respect to consumption of values. And remember that context may well include holding back and being seen to be polite! When values are available for free it is rational to gather while the gathering is good. If they become expensive, suddenly (but unsurprisingly) the gathering or consuming slows to an appropriate pace.
If you take away the free lunch, suddenly everyone loses their appetite. The source of the metaphorical “free lunch” is most often government interventions and the lack of a completely free market. Those who spend ‘public’ money on expense accounts, those who consume public money in welfare, those who benefit from government contracts and franchises, those who benefit from government research money, those who benefit from government policies, all have their noses in the trough of money taken by force from ordinary productive people. All of these parties will be eager to consume as much as possible while the going is good.
More than one’s fair share
When a cake is being divided up the concept of a fair share is perfectly valid. But in economic circumstances where all people are free to produce their values and keep the results of their efforts the concept of consuming more than one’s fair share in not valid. The thinker must always be mindful of context.
Rich people consuming more than they need
When you understand that wealth is not a zero-sum game, and when you understand that each person’s wealth benefits all others with whom they trade, the idea of rich people consuming more than their fair share disappears. Owning several luxury homes when there are homeless people on the streets is not wrong if it provides employment for all the producers of the stuff that goes into the homes and the cleaners and gardeners who maintain them. Again we must zoom out and see the bigger picture, the full context. A lack of knowledge equates to a narrower context.
Corporations accumulating vast wealth on behalf of shareholders
It needs to be understood that the accumulation of capital per se is not wrong or evil. Large sums of wealth are necessary for investment and the functioning of an industrial economy. To have a problem with the accumulation of wealth in and of itself is simply a misunderstanding of the fundamentals and the full context. How that wealth is accumulated is another matter. Whether or not the current banking system is equitable is another matter? How money is created out of nothing in a partnership of private interests and government and subsequently made available to insiders for little or no effort is another matter. But the accumulation of wealth, per se, is a perfectly legitimate aim for each and every one of us. It is the methods, the context and the system in which wealth is accumulated by some at the expense of others that needs to be questioned and changed. Specifically, it is the tag team between government and wealthy private interests that dominate the current exploitative monetary system that needs questioning and changing.
The context of Greed
Greed only exists in the context of gaining the unearned or grabbing free stuff. If there is no pile of free stuff to loot, there is no rush to over-consume. If the market provides everything at its appropriate price, there is very little overconsumption. If you pay for your own indulgence with your own effort it is most often necessarily tempered and restrained. And even if it isn’t, it’s fair enough. You earned it you spend it how you like. In this context, overconsumption may be seen at a feast or celebration.
Greed and dishonesty
Yes, some people will steel to acquire the values they need or want. But this really is a separate issue. There is no evidence to support greed making people dishonest in a cause-effect relationship. This is because greed is not a primary, it is an effect. Dishonesty is also an effect. An effect of ignorance of the negative consequences that inevitably result when you attempt to fake reality and discard the concept of truth.
Greed and gambling
One harmless form of greed that we all encounter is the issue of when to stop when you are winning. If you are on the metaphorical ‘roulette wheel’ and on a perceived winning streak, it is a challenge to determine when to stop. But this affects no one else other than the player. It is not really greed in the strict sense of the word. It is a matter of choice and learning for the individual. We all learn eventually that it is wise to quit while you are ahead because in the long run, all winnings turn to losses. Gambling is no more a problem in creating greed than knives are a problem in creating stabbings. It is the irrationality of people that is the fundamental problem, not the tools through which they express their irrationality.
Definition of greed
My definition of greed is this: overconsumption due to artificial circumstances of excess availability.
It is the creation of the circumstances in which people wish to over-consume that is the problem. The behaviour is logical and rational in the context of a free lunch. Free lunches don’t exist in reality. Imagine yourself on a desert island. Working hard to create all your values for yourself. How greedy would you be?
Overconsumption can be rational. You might want to eat excessively if you don’t know when your next meal will be. You might want to stock up on excessive amounts of water if you were setting out across a dry and barren land. You may want to stock up ‘excessively’ with firewood to see you through a long but indeterminate winter period.
What greed is not
- Greed is not a primary, it is an effect.
- Greed is not inherent in human nature any more than aggression or shyness.
- Greed is not the cause of any economic problems.
- Greed has nothing to do with Capitalism
- Greed is not the root cause of any problem mankind faces – irrationality is!
- Greed is not being concerned with one’s own rational self-interest.
- Greed is not intensely wanting or desiring something or to improve your life.
- Greed is not wanting wealth and comfort in material possessions.
- Greed is not Letting others do the work but claiming the rewards – that is parasitism.
- Greed isn’t gaming the system because you perceive it’s in your interest to do so.
- Greed isn’t trying to get something for nothing – that is parasitism.
Greed is a widely used scapegoat for explaining away numerous problems that are insufficiently understood. Greed can be blamed instead of identifying the real causes.
Much of the misunderstanding comes from inherited religious dogma that people have not fully questioned and unravelled.
Geed is not to blame for any of the problems humanity experiences because it is not a primary. When people pay with their own effort for what they consume, greed suddenly goes away.
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Treehouse Farm, November 10th 2020