Greed

Imagine a big barrel of food, around which are gathered a dozen hungry people.  When the food is gone, there is no more.  How do you tell the greedy ones?

Well, we might look to see who pushes the old lady back.  We could see who eats more than 1/12 of the total.  We could listen for the groans of the stuffed who just keep on stuffing.  In short, we could find the greedy ones.

Now, forget that analogy.  It is useless.

Life and the material things that sustain it are not fixed in quantity.  They are rarely found on the ground in usable form.  They do not fall from the sky, unless we happen to be talking about rain or flamingos.  The things that human beings use to survive and prosper are mostly created.  That fact makes “greed” a useless concept when it comes to public policy.

Nothing garners condemnation more than authentic economic success.  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get sincere recognition of his/her achievements.  Why?  Because they are greedy!

When I hear the word “greedy” I think of that guy at the edge of the barrel pushing the old lady.  What he gets, she does not.  If he takes more, she gets less. It is a zero-sum game.  Many of my acquaintances over the years have accepted as axiomatic the premise that rich people are greedy. (Translation: They have more than I think they ought to.)  The implication is that by having more, someone else has less.

If a wealthy person is in cahoots with politicians to rig the game or cheats through fraud, he/she could fairly be called greedy.  The use of force to acquire things always entails zero-sum dynamics.

If a wealthy person creates something and trades with it, he/she has not taken anything from anybody.  The sum total of good stuff has gone up.  There is no barrel.  Rather there is an ever-expanding supply of goods, courtesy of the human brain.

The present-day mind seems to have lost its capacity for distinctions.  Calling both the honestly prosperous and the double-dealing political entrepreneur “greedy” is dishonest and culpable.

Let us also think about who might think us, the un-wealthy and the not-yet-wealthy, greedy.  Maybe it is the homeless man who wonders how you can justify a computer when he has nowhere to sleep.  Maybe it is the exotic dancer slaving away night after night to survive as a single mother.  Or how about the genuinely poor, who are barely breathing?

Oh, you contribute to the poor?  Well, so do the rich–a hell of a lot more than you and me by the way.  So next time you beef about their mansions, think about how much good you have actually done the poor.

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Terry is proud of the support his male students give to single mothers.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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