The Morality of Greed
Anyone who enjoyed a high school or college infatuation with the ideas contained in the popular novels of Ayn Rand knows that characters like John Galt and Howard Roark represent all that is good about capitalism. Their intelligence, determination, and ethics made them heroes — heroes of acquisitiveness passed off as heroes of innovation and progress. Rand, aside from being a master of the potboiler, was one of capitalism’s great apologists, a stirring defender of the indefensible, who masterfully illustrated some of our most treasured nostrums: free markets and free men make the world better for everyone; without an incentive to achieve, everything gets stuck in the socialist muck; it’s a fair game that anyone can play.
How persuasive is she? After devouring her collected works, most people conclude that the only logical, efficient way to organize a society is around the premise of greed. Forget all that fancy talk found in the various holy books, humanist manifestos, and the collected works of discredited windbags like Karl Marx. Mankind, one learns from Rand — and Hayek, and Keynes, and Friedman — is greedy. And the only way to harness that greed effectively is to reward individuals for following their basic instinct to have more than everyone else.
Capitalism ain’t perfect, the thinking goes. But it’s the best we can do.
Maybe that’s true. I don’t know.
But I’m pretty sure about one thing: market-based capitalism, in theory and practice, is what we used to call “immoral” before morality became a product to be bought and sold by venal churches. They, too, are created by men and built around the organizing principle of greed, though there is some evidence that their original inspiration, guys like Jesus Christ, weren’t much interested in cool marketing gimmicks like the “prosperity gospel.”
At what point did it become acceptable for 1 billion human beings on our planet to starve? At what point did it become acceptable for one out of five of us to lack direct access to potable water? You can argue semantics, but in my crude calculation it’s immoral — and obscene and profoundly troubling — that my beloved country thinks it’s OK for a few to have so much and for so many to have so little. No, we don’t think it’s OK. We think it’s terrific!
Life isn’t fair. Yes, we all understand that, and we’re reminded of that fact on a daily basis. Visit a place like Aspen, Colorado, or Palm Beach, Florida, or any other playground for the rich, and the vast chasm between Achievers and Losers smacks you in the face like a $900 handbag. Do not mistake my discomfort with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett –and, to a somewhat lesser extent, me and all my neighbors and friends — as an excuse to redistribute global wealth. My concern is that we consider these men heroes and role models, ideal sources of inspiration worthy of a Rand novel.
Where, I wonder, is our countervailing sense of disgust? Where is the corrective shame that our religions and philosophies are supposed to instill in our sinful heart? Family Values, I reckon, ought to extend to all our brothers and sisters, not just the ones we like.
We are all too busy trying to Make It to reflect on the injustice and violence of our greed. We’re all too focused on being successful capitalists to reflect on the ramifications of our success. So ingrained are our most basic assumptions ( that profiting from the labors of others is correct and necessary; that there must be losers in order for others to win) that we become inured and, eventually, oblivious to the suffering our way of life causes.
We can give to every charity extant and volunteer for this worthy project and that corrective organization. We can attempt to expiate our sins. But no amount of righteous do-gooding can cleanse the stain of immorality when our entire existence is predicated on taking advantage of whomever we can.