Misconceptions of Greed

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Few evils are a greater plight on humanity throughout all of history than the evil of greed. The greed of monarchs, politicians, and other elites have led civilizations to ruin. It is considered one of seven deadly sins within the Christian tradition. Dante placed it at the third level in his Purgatorio. One could make an endless list of denunciations of greed in the modern day or throughout literature across world history.

And yet there are some that will push back on these denunciations of greed, as economist Milton Friedman famously did on the Phil Donahue Show. He did not jump to defend greed, but instead asked, “What is greed?”

Many (likely most) accusations and denunciations of greed in recent times rely on sloppy terminology, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes with malice. Greed as a concept is twisted by the envious (a worse sin than greed, according to Dante) to apply to anyone with greater wealth than them. Nowadays we complain about how “racism” has lost all meaning because it is a term too easily thrown about. Greed lost its meaning in the same way long ago.

When discussing any abstract concept, it is important to define terms. As Thomas Sowell importantly points out, “All statements are true, if you are free to redefine their terms.” The first sentence of this article is either true or false depending on the definition of greed.

Many accusations of greed are thrown at the wealthy simply for possessing wealth, or for pursuing that wealth even after they are already quite wealthy. These accusations seem to specifically target the pursuit of wealth in itself as a bad thing.

Of course, as Friedman (and many others) argued, the pursuit of wealth cannot possibly be the definition of greed. Everyone pursues profit of some kind (whether material or psychic), whether they are poor or rich, or somewhere in between. Those who accuse others of greed continue to go to work in order to acquire wealth. To claim that any pursuit of wealth is within the definition of greed would be to take an insanely radical position. Without the innate human desire to profit, civilization itself would cease to exist. There would be no “progress” of any kind. To denounce the pursuit of profit would be to denounce that which led to every great achievement ever accomplished.

So then, greed cannot be defined as broadly as this. Some might put forth a definition that limits greed to the pursuit of material wealth. But this still does not work. Would we not consider an obsessive pursuit of power and control over others as a form of greed? Or would the pursuit of material goods be less greedy if it were only a means to an end of an obsessive pursuit of social status and recognition by others? Even then, the trouble remains that it is hard to see the pursuit of material goods as inherently greedy, since this would include the small business owner working tirelessly to improve his business and increase the standard of living of his family.

Since it is the wealthy who are often targeted, greed seems to be a matter of degree. One who continues to pursue wealth even after he has “enough” is defined as greedy. But how much is enough? This varies from person to person. Some people are content with a rather low standard of living by some standards. Others are demanding a “living wage” that is far higher than what most people throughout history have lived on. Where do we set the bar as to what is greedy and what is reasonable? Surely those living in the top 1% could be seen as greedy under this definition? But it seems to be those in the global 1% that complain about people richer than them being greedy. Why are they not leading by example and giving away the majority of their wealth to those across the world? The answer suggests their accusations are based in envy, not any genuine opposition to greed.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia provides a nuanced definition of greed: “an uncontrolled longing for increase in the acquisition or use: of material gain (be it food, money, land, or animate/inanimate possessions) or social value, such as status, or power.” The important word here in this definition is “uncontrolled.” The pursuit of wealth (either material or social) is not a bad thing in itself. It is only when this pursuit is an uncontrolled urge that it becomes an evil. Greed is not striving to earn more unless it is an uncontrolled and endless pursuit for the more, purely for the sake of being the more.

When one’s pursuit of wealth is so extensive that they steal or commit fraud in order to acquire more, that is greed. When they value power or material wealth more than they value the rights of others, that is greed. When they neglect their obligations and responsibilities in order to pursue more, that is greed. 

Under this definition, a billionaire entrepreneur is greedy if he is committing fraud or neglecting his family or becoming obsessed with making that line go up. But the act of being a billionaire entrepreneur is not of itself greedy. If done honestly, he is doing much good.

Wanting more, even if you have plenty, is not a bad thing. It is what drives us to be better. Some may be content to stop at a certain point, and that’s perfectly fine. But we all act in order to improve our circumstances. So long as this pursuit is done as a means to happiness and well-being, and does not harm others in the process, it is a good, and not an evil. Any reasonable definition of greed must take this into account, and denunciations of good people as “greedy” must be challenged and refuted.

“I have never understood why it is greed to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.” – Thomas Sowell

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]