July 30, 2010

Is Greed Still Good?


"Greed is right. Greed works."
- Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street (1987)

In Star Trek the ultimate aggressive aliens are The Borg. They fly around space in big intimidating black cubes relentlessly consuming other cultures in order to enhance their own. While going about their ruthless business they repeat a tag line to their cowering prey - "Resistance is futile". The Borg are wickedly efficient at what they do, and are hard to stop. Just like capitalism and its proponents.

Knowing Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, he meant the all-powerful Borg to represent the culture of the 'free market' system. I was reminded of that today when I flipped through one of my old journals and found a quote from a great book I read two years ago. I can see why I wrote the quote down as it sums up my feelings toward societal conventions very well.

The quotation is from Greed Inc. by Wade Rowland. In it he argues that capitalism, as outlined by Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations, is founded on an erroneous basis. In his book Smith states that self-interested behavior can be accepted and applauded if it leads to the betterment of society as a whole. Therefore, as Wall Street boasted in the 1980s, "Greed is good" because a rising tide lifts all boats. Or that is what they would like us to think.

Wade Rowland disagrees about the supposed universal benefits of greed in a capitalistic system, and points out that we do not always act with our own selfish interests in mind. Our current economic system is not as natural as its proponents would like us to think:
"The training to obey the work and consumer ethic has taken place against the grain and in the face of enormous resistance. We now look upon that resistance as not just futile, but immoral. The Luddites are dismissed as criminally obtuse, and anyone who confesses to being content with what is sufficient and unwilling to work and earn and consume beyond that level of sustenance is dangerously antisocial and morally impaired by Sloth."
Rowland goes on to say, "Our economic system was designed to institutionalize and rationalize the vice of avarice, and it does this with wicked efficiency". Avarice is one of the original deadly sins. It means "reprehensible acquisitiveness". It is something to be avoided, not something to base an entire global culture on. Our current system leaves billions behind. Not all boats are rising, and many people are drowning.

Even Adam Smith himself admits that if egoistic behavior does not lend itself to the public good, then it ought to be stopped. Our current system, then, ought to be stopped.

The Borg are wrong, as are the Wall Street suits - resistance is not futile. In the end, I side with philosopher David Hume and his belief that powerful moral sentiments will guide us as we act together for the greater good. The ideals that he says are the antidotes to greed? Love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude.

Is greed still good? Was it ever? If we focus on love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude, everything else will take care of itself. They will overpower greed and change our world. Competition is yesterday's brutal game that manufactured winners and losers. I see us evolving toward a better, more cooperative future in which all can win. Good riddance greed.

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