In Defense of Greed

Robert McCreary, NPHS - Social Studies Teacher

There is a movement that has received a lot of attention lately that is growing both in size and influence.  It’s called the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Although they also criticize government for being a little too cozy with big business, the root of their outrage is corporate greed.  Greed is a term that is usually used in the negative.  But there is a lot to be thankful for with regard to greed.  Unfortunately, much of how our society benefits from greed goes unnoticed and is usually taken for granted.  Think of this analogy.  When you throw a rock into a pond, ripples extend outward in all directions.  An act of greed works the same way.  But only focusing attention on the negative side of greed is like trying to say that the ripples on the pond only go in one direction.  Just because the positive aspects of greed are not as easily noticed (or completely ignored) doesn’t mean those ripples do not exist.  The social sciences of sociology and economics spend a large portion of their time studying the effects of behavior and policies, both seen and unseen, on society and the citizens within.

One of my favorite authors is economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams.  I was listening to an interview with him the other day and the concept of greed came up.  He gave some interesting insights.  He first asked the question “Which human motivator gets more things done in our society, love or greed?”  He then offered a story about steak and potato lovers.  It went something like this.

Cattle ranchers in Oklahoma and potato growers in Idaho routinely wake up at 3:00am on very cold mornings to do very difficult, back breaking work.  Their labor is the beginning of a long chain of events that literally involves hundreds of people, most of whom do not even know each other.  This chain of events eventually culminates in a New York City couple eating a great steak and potato meal cooked to order at their favorite restaurant. 

Why do the cattle ranchers, potato growers, and everyone else along the chain of production continue to do the daily grind of their jobs?  It’s extremely difficult work that most people avoid like the plague.  So why do they do it?  Is it for the “love” of New Yorkers?  If you asked the ranchers of Oklahoma and the growers in Idaho that question, chances are good that the word “love” would not be used in their answers.  That’s not a knock against New Yorkers.  It would apply if the couple was in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and yes, even Lansdale.  The reality is, it’s tough to use the word “love” with people you don’t know.  So, what is the answer then?  Why does everyone do the hard labor of producing that meal?  The answer is greed.   Everyone on that chain acts in their own self-interest because each one wants to make a living.  If they stopped doing the work or even slacked off just a little, the money they made doing that work will start to go to someone else. 

And that brings us to the other side of greed.  If you ask someone what greed is, they probably will say something like “the obsession with making money.”  That is true but it is only half the definition.  Greed is a combination of the desire to make more money and the fear of losing money.  Capitalism is often described as running on a “profit system.” It is not.  It is run by a “profit and loss system.” The “and loss” part is just as important.  It’s like a coin. There is no such thing as a one sided coin.  Just because you only look at one side of the coin does not mean the other side is not there.

This “fear of losing money” side of the coin of greed has had an enormous positive impact on the history of our country.  Did you know that greed played a huge role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement?   I am confident you will never read that in a history book.  It’s true nonetheless. 

Historians still disagree as to why Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play baseball.  Some say he did it on moral grounds and some say it was just an attempt to make more money.  Why he did it is not what matters.  What matters is why every other team eventually followed suit and began to sign black players.  Did they all just wake up one day and realize that their racist attitudes and policies were morally wrong and in need of changing?  Did they all of a sudden start to “love” African-American baseball players?  Unfortunately, no.  They knew that if they did not start to sign black players for their teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers would have signed all the top black players, probably would have won many World Series titles in a row, and would have made a killing in profits from the country’s African-American population in ticket sales and merchandise.  The other owners’ fear of losing money made them realize that their racist policies would cost them too much to continue.  They caved and began signing black players.  The same is true with ending segregation policies on southern buses as well as at department store lunch counters.  Owners of those businesses did not change their racist attitudes.  They realized that the financial costs of discrimination were now too high.  If the Civil Rights Movement relied on “love” to fix the South, they would have had to wait a lot longer for changes to be made. 

Corporate greed sparked an end to segregation in the South.  Who would have thought?

Greed can be an enormously powerful incentive for good in society. American prosperity and our high standard of living that comes from it originates from greed.  The fact that it is not talked about much or even ignored does not mean the positive side of it doesn’t exist. 

So, the next time you bite into a juicy steak at your favorite restaurant, think about greed … and be more thankful for it.