What is Greed?

Is greed good? Or is greed the root of all evil? It depends on how you define greed. Get involved in political discussions outside your own echo chamber and you’ll find quite a few definitions of greed batted about, oftentimes without signal that the meaning has changed. Here are a few:

  1. A strong desire for more wealth/material goods.
  2. A desire for great wealth.
  3. A desire for additional wealth that trumps moral considerations.
  4. A desire for more wealth than one has rightfully earned.
  5. A desire for more wealth than others.
  6. A desire to hoard/use one’s wealth for purely selfish purposes.

These definitions are not equivalent!

Ayn Rand celebrated greed as per Definitions 1 and 2 as heroic, while condemning greed as per definitions 3 and 4. (Many of Ayn Rand’s villains were rich.)

Unions exist in large part to increase the wealth of their memberships (Definition 1) and often employ techniques that border on aggression to get it (Definition 3), yet few on the Left condemn Unions.

I aspire to great wealth (greed Definition 2) in large part because I want to spend it for some good causes (opposite of greed Definition 6). Were I less benevolent I would be less greedy as I make enough to live a comfortable existence if I didn’t expend so much on political and other causes.

Definition 5 of greed encompasses both the envious and the vandal -- those who would pull others down in order to feel richer -- and the simply competitive, those for whom money is “just a method of keeping score” [Larry Ellison].

Aristocrats and Ayn Rand Villains

The desire for great wealth (greed Definition 2) is not always equivalent to the desire for more wealth (Definitions 1 and 3). Some people already have great wealth, and of them some consider it enough. This is the rationale for aristocracy. Those who have sated their desire for additional wealth are less subject to temptation (Definition 3), can afford to be generous (vs. greed Definition 6), and have the resources to put their socially conscious desires into action. Al Gore and George Washington fit this pattern. The Founders expected most politicians to come from the aristocracy; this is why they made no provision for campaign finance. In other words, the Founders wanted the type of people today we call “limousine liberals.”

Ayn Rand loathed limousine liberals and their contempt for honest wealth creation and acquisition. I sympathize with her attitude here, but I also recognize the usefulness of aristocracy. Someone needs to look after the aspects of the general welfare not covered by for-profit enterprise, and they need the resources to carry out their mission. This is a job rightfully carried out by aristocrats. But such aristocrats do deserve derision when they exercise contempt for the wealth creators who earned them their positions. (And they deserve outright villification when they rig the system to prevent outsiders from joining the aristocracy.)

So, Is Greed Good?

I leave that up for you to decide. Just be honest in which definition of greed you are referring to when you make your decisions and your arguments. All too often I have debated anti-capitalists who switch definitions to whichever suits their current argument, dishonestly conflating different definitions of greed. This unfair tactic is not limited to anti-capitalists, of course. Ayn Rand did the same thing for altruism. It’s tempting to play debate games when the stakes are high, but inner honesty also has its rewards. Try it.

And if you find that greed is indeed bad, and you suffer the burden of excess wealth, send it to me and I’ll take care of it for you ;-)