Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Greed Leads to Good Deeds

Greed gets a bad rap. I do not believe greed deserves the condemnation that it regularly receives at the hands of its critics. And I am not even referring to the violence* introduced by some greedy people. I am only speaking of greed by itself. Those who speak against (non-violent) greed often speak of environmental exploitation, income inequality, spiritual decay, or the destruction of society. But let me help you understand greed and the natural actions taken by greedy people, for then you will see that you have nothing to fear from this alleged bogeyman.

Merriam-Webster defines greed as "an intense selfish desire for wealth or possessions". Now imagine being a greedy person. You want stuff and you want it really bad. How do you get it? There are three non-violent ways to accumulate stuff. You can find stuff that has no owner and keep it, you can beg people to just give you stuff, or you can trade your stuff for other stuff. 

The first option of finding unowned stuff is of no consequence because it is completely neutral in relation to other people. The second option of begging, while perhaps annoying to some, does not really affect other people. The third option of trading is the focus of this post because that is what so many people fight against. So many people worry about the supposed dangers of "unregulated capitalism". So let us examine the trading that greed causes.

How do you get people to trade with you so that you end up with more wealth than you had before? You have to find someone who is willing to give you something that is more valuable in exchange for something that is less valuable. But where do you find a fool who will trade with you and agree to end up with less? This is where the magic of capitalism comes into play. In an economic exchange, both parties believe that they got the better deal. A person who buys a TV for $500 values the TV more than the $500. In a choice between the two, he prefers the TV as evidenced by the fact that he bought it. He received something more valuable in exchange for something less valuable. The person who sold the TV for $500 values the $500 more than the TV. In a choice between the two, he prefers the $500 as evidenced by the fact that he sold the TV. He received something more valuable in exchange for something less valuable.

How can two people walk away from an economic exchange, both thinking that they got the better deal? That seems impossible! Perhaps one of them made a mistake? Actually, no mistake was made. Each person simply has different economic preferences and nobody has the ability to tell another person that they are objectively wrong in those preferences. Knowing this basic economic principle leads to some amazing conclusions!

In a world of free trade, the only way to get wealthy (i.e. the goal of every greedy person) is to offer goods and services that will improve people's lives - goods and services that people want and value!† This is how greed leads to good deeds. When you help other people get what they want, you end up getting what you want. The people who want to be wealthier than everyone else (i.e. the greediest among us) have to serve others better than anyone. This motivation leads them to invest wealth they have already made into developing better goods and services and/or more efficient means of delivering those goods and services. As this greed cycle repeats over and over again, everyone's standard of living improves. This is literally the only way to lift people out of poverty. And not only that, but there is no foreseeable end to the amount of wealth everyone can accumulate!

The next time you hear someone criticizing greed just know that, logically speaking, that person is against serving others in valuable ways.

*Because this is not about the violence of greedy people, this blog post contains no discussion on the state (any coercive government) or the crony capitalism caused by the state.

†People who are not greedy but choose to serve others in the most valuable ways possible also end up wealthy. Because of this, there is no way to know for sure whether an entrepreneur has selfish or selfless motivations.


  1. We all know that greed is bad. But that's a condition of the heart, and only God can discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. You are right, though, that greed in a voluntary market leads to good deeds. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" proves it.