December 20, 2010

A Word or Two on Greed

As politicians haggle and maneuver over the question of taxes on the rich, the notion of greed is always with us, an ever-present subtext to such debates. It seems that no one, though, considers the notion of greed in any depth. It is enough to simply hurl accusations and accept one’s own moral high ground as a given. But are greed and wealth synonymous? Most of us who are not wealthy were taught to think so, either directly or implicitly. In truth, however, greed is just a characteristic of human beings. No group has a monopoly on it.

Consider this scenario. Imagine yourself completely without greed, absolutely committed to the laudable principles of fairness and human equality. It seems to me you would then be subject to the following proposition:

The per capita income of the world is approximately 10,500 US dollars. If you make more than this and do not give the surplus to people who makes less, arguably you are being greedy -- taking more than your fair share. For simplicity sake, let us assume that you are single and have no dependents. You certainly have the means to give the money away. No agent of authority is going to stop you from being charitable. Nor would it be too difficult to find recipients. Even if you felt justified in stipulating that “your” surplus should only go to people who are deserving (by whatever ethical criteria you might propose) deserving people on a planet of six billion are plentiful enough. Further, I can say from personal experience that $10,500 per annum is a sufficient sum to survive on in the US, albeit not very comfortably or securely. Certainly, you could find a way to do without a car, and modern television, and even take the risk of living without health insurance, in the interest of helping someone in Zimbabwe or Paraguay attain minimal shelter or food. This would be the fair thing to do. Still, supposing you didn’t want to give up "your" surplus, what excuses might you offer to your conscience?

You could say you deserve your income. You could argue that you contribute disproportionately to the wellbeing of humanity, and therefore ought to get a little more than the paltry world average. Perhaps you are a doctor and you heal the sick, or an industrialist who provides jobs for thousands of people, or a clergyman who at least imagines he saves their souls. If you are really serious about fairness, this argument for your exemption isn’t going to work in most cases. Maybe if you do enough direct and obvious good, a little extra income for healthcare might be justified to save your life -- but it doesn’t seem as justified to use it on your third vacation home. For that matter, it doesn’t seem much more justified to use it on more pedestrian luxuries. You get a big TV, and the Paraguayan peasant starves. Not a very equitable exchange.

The positive argument failing, you could always try the negative one: those who are poor deserve their poverty. Well, unless you are devoted to some sort of transcendent cosmic justice myth, believing that wealth, and probably everything else, gets parceled out by a deity who is fair by definition, this justification isn’t going to work either. After all, there are whole nations of malnourished, desperate people. It isn’t plausible that they all became destitute through acts of individual will -- even if we assume we have free will, which is at least an open question. In any case, only being fair to those whom you deem worthy of fairness isn’t very different from being unfair. We cannot really have principles if we make them up as we go along.

You could propose that you already make donations to charity, and that the amount you give is morally sufficient. Unfortunately, this still leaves that Paraguayan peasant starving as you sit comfortably behind your new TV. How can you be a moral person and believe that your enjoyment of some non-essential possession has the same value as another person’s life or health?

You might also think “I live up the moral standards of my society.” This will certainly not do, because so did Josef Mengele. The moral equality of human beings is a pretty meaningless ideal if it can be trumped by a mere ad populum rationale.

Lastly, you might argue that the wealth you have to offer is inconsequential compared to the wealth that others so unjustly horde, and that it is they who need to feed that Paraguayan peasant and not yourself. This argument has an interesting quality. The millionaire can wag a finger at the billionaire, the well-off professional can wag a finger at the millionaire, and the store clerk can wag a finger even at the well-off professional. Each makes a claim, at least implicitly, of being relatively fair -- of being innocent because others are more guilty. Is it true, though, that failing to prevent one instance of suffering is more moral than failing to prevent two instances – or are two failures more moral than a thousand? Is allowing a neighbor to suffer more moral than being indifferent to the suffering of a million people one will never know or see?

Other than actually impoverishing oneself, there is only one way to escape this trap. It is to accept that, though most people manage be generous to some degree, probably not one in a million actually pursues the ideas of fairness and equality to their logical conclusions. The person that does is fair. The rest of us are greedy -- prepared to let others suffer for the sake of our own comfort.Human beings are not made morally different by the mere acquisition of wealth. People of all classes pursue similar patterns of generosity. They give to those that are close to them and, for the most part, they ignore those that they don’t personally know. Moreover, generosity itself is not always the purest of exercises. If you give to have a foundation created in your name, or to impress your friends, or to placate your deity, your motives are essentially self-serving. Of course, it’s all the same to our starving peasant -- but we are talking about intentions here, not consequences.

It is not my object to make the wealthy feel better about themselves. There are more than enough sycophants in the world to provide that service. It is more my object to point out to the rest of us how self-servingly hypocritical it is to think our relative poverty makes us, by necessity, morally better. The non-rich call the rich greedy for more-or-less the same reason that the rich call the non-rich lazy – to feel better about themselves. We can certainly debate the actual, tangible consequences of unrestrained capitalism -- just as we can debate the tangible consequences of socialism, or anything else. Adding moral indignation to such discussions, though, rarely contributes anything illuminating. Any attempt to make rational sense of human society must include putting aside those ideas that condemn or deny the actual nature of human beings.


  1. I think you missed an argument: you can decide not to give your excess money away because it won't help.

    In sheer point of fact, if every American sent every dollar over $11K overseas to the poor and the starving, things would get worse. Much, much worse. Virtually all of that income would be captured by thugs, criminals, or oppressive governments (assuming we can tell the difference), who would then use those resources to attack and enslave the American people.

    The morality of what should be done cannot be separated from the reality of what can be done. As usual.

    Of course you are correct that greed - or more accurately in this context, desire for gain - is natural and even necessary. People without a desire for gain would never have created a society with excess wealth in the first place, and we'd still be banging rocks together to make fire. Communisitic or idealistic (or religious) protestations to the contrary are absurd.

    But I think the word greed is usually meant to apply to an out-of-control desire to gain. Often the results of greed means less for everyone, including the greedy person! A classic example is given here:

    1) In all income categories except the 95th percentile, income growth rates under Democratic presidents exceeded income growth rates under Republican ones. That suggests greater income equality can coexist with (or even help create) greater prosperity.

    2) The 95th percentile fared about the same under Democrats and Republicans. (This chart shows it doing slightly better under Democrats, but the margin of error erases the Democrats' advantage.)

    It is a popular belief that rich people make more money under Republicans; but the ironic reality is, the entire nation as a whole makes more under Democrats, and rich people make at least as much (if not more) under Democrats too. However, rich people make proportionally more under Republicans, meaning that although they don't get any richer than they would under Democrats, other people get less rich.

    This is greed: being so short-sighted about your gains that you hurt other people more than necessary, or even hurt yourself. When you define other people having less as just as valuable as you having more, you are greedy.

    The mere fact that human nature can commit crimes does not justify or excuse them. We know that our base instincts are not good guides; we daily repress our desire to cheat, steal, or take the easy route. The same discipline can easily be applied to the wealth of nations.

    There are, in fact, many successful societies today that have restrained greed to a rational level. All the Nordic countries are doing fine, thank you very much, with a wealth distribution gap far lower than America's. Germany, Australia, even France, are great places to live despite having tax rates that would make Republicans faint. Yet despite those tax rates, all of those countries have plenty of rich people, and they are great places for rich people to live. In sheer point of fact, of course, the latter is true because of the former.

  2. I did not think the argument that "it won't help" because it is simply not true in the individual case. As an individual, you could certainly redistribute the resourses at your disposal more fairly, and they would almost certainly help a handful of people. It is irrelevant what would happen if everybody did this, because in a free society almost nobody will. It is telling that you reformulated what I proposed as an individual moral choice as a collective government mandate. Not being a collectist, I generally don't think that way.

    You then proceed to make a reasoned argument -- bravo! More people should do this! Of course, I don't trust articles in Slate much more than I trust Sean Hannity's burbling -- but at least we are now arguing about facts, which is a step in the right direction.

  3. "As an individual, you could certainly redistribute the resourses at your disposal more fairly, and they would almost certainly help a handful of people."

    Well, yes, but remember that one of those people is you. As long as you are being charitable to strangers, there's no reason you shouldn't be equally charitable to yourself.

    In sheer point of fact, when faced with imminent disaster, people do give quite generously. Hurricane Katrina, for example.

    But in normal times, people are genetically programmed to punish cheaters, because this is how we keep the system functioning. And people who perpetually need a handout look a lot like cheaters.

    One thing I completely agree with you on - our population density has overwhelmed our biological instincts on managing a society.