I’m at the Acton Institute and I’m thinking about greed. Greed is the essence of capitalism, right? Michael Douglas captured this sentiment as corporate villain, Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 movie Wall Street.
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Filmmaker Michael Moore echoes this attitude in his movie Capitalism: A Love Story, calling the free market system “legalized greed.” Well, if Hollywood is correct, then a free market economy isn’t an option for the Christian. Jesus is clear on the matter: “”Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Greed is immoral. But is capitalism based on greed? No, and if you think so, you’ve bought into the myth.
Charges of greed are misplaced. Can greed flourish apart from a free market economy? Absolutely. Wherever you find human beings, no matter their economic context, you find greed. Greed is a matter of the human heart. Now, can greed arise in the free markets? Absolutely. No denying that one. But that’s saying something very different than the claim that greed is the essence of capitalism. If this were true, how could the United States, rooted in a free market economy, be the most charitable country on earth? The outpouring of charity during recent disasters like Hurrican Katrina or the Haitian earthquake fly in the face of such charges.
The basis of capitalism is not selfish greed but rather, appropriate self-interest. This distinction is vital to grasp. Self-interest is not wrong. Do you desire food and shelter? Do you wish to take care of your loved ones? I hope so. Are these greedy desires? Of course not. They represent a proper self-interest. Self-interest is simply looking out for one’s interests. Indeed, Jesus endorses self-interest. How does He tell us we ought to love others? As we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39).
Does self-interest have limits? Yes. When appropriate self-interest is abandoned and we move into selfishness, we have crossed the line into sin. But that matter must be dealt with in the individual’s heart and not pawned off on the free market system. The sinful human heart is to be blamed, not capitalism.
Of course, there’s much more to be said than can be in a short blog post. So if you want to think a little deeper than Hollywood sound-bytes, check out these Acton resources: