I think that I’m beginning to understand why greed is good. Greed provides clarity and focus in a world of steadily increasing and seemingly endless possibilities. When the twin towers go down, gold traders keep on trading gold, and in a global market that needs gold to stabilize itself from the shock maybe that’s a good thing.
Greed is also predictable. Greedy people are easy to understand, easy to motivate and therefore easy to do business with. Traders on the Enron floor did not graduate ready to shut off California’s power, they entered an environment built for and by greedy people and they conformed because greed is also safe. In an environment where everyone else is greedy there is no (apparent) benefit to being nice. A greedy person surrounded by nice people may or may not become nice, but a nice person surrounded by greedy people will eventually be forced to become greedy.
In a way, greed serves all of the functions of a religion. Greed provides rituals (focus on self, follow profit), it provides clarity and focus in a complicated and frightening world. It creates community, to the extent that it allows a large group of people to
understand (if not trust) one another. Greed even proselytizes, both explicitly in back-slapping boardrooms and implicitly by punishing through plunder any person or ecosystem that is not sufficiently greedy. Many of the horrors of globalization seem to be justified by their perpetrators as unfortunate but necessary measures to get the world’s still-communal societies to join the global community of the free market and accept the greed creed.
But like a religion, greed requires enormous sacrifice and enormous faith. To be greedy we must sacrifice our ability to be vulnerable with others, and with it sacrifice much of our capacity to build human intimacy. We must have faith that the spoils that we gain through greed can compensate for the intimacy that we have lost. We must sacrifice our connection to our social and physical environment. We must have faith that by focusing primarily on what’s best for ourselves, our families, and our employers we will produce what is best for the world. Finally, we must sacrifice the safety of community. Greed puts us in isolation, and people in isolation are much more fragile than those in a unified group. Greed requires faith that our free network of isolated, greedy people can leverage its economic resources to stand up to communities whose deeper bonds make them much more socially powerful.
Like biblical plagues, crisis after crisis is calling this faith into serious question. These crises start with the mid-life variety, where people feel the pangs of a life in relative isolation. They scale up to crisis in the deregulated financial sector, where the world’s largest and most perfect experiment with a free network of greedy people suddenly has crumbled to ashes. As the climate crisis rears its teeth it is becoming apparent that ignoring our connection with our environment may be as bad an idea as it always seemed. Increasingly, the greedy isolation that seemed so liberating is making us feel alone and exposed to a rapidly approaching storm. All of a sudden, all across capitalism, greed seems stupid. It’s a crisis of faith.
It’s a state described beautifully by sociologist Emile Durkhiem, a state he calls “anomie.” Normlessness. If people can’t trust in greed to make them happy, keep them safe, connect them in a network and make the world a better place then what can they trust? “Responsibility” doesn’t tell them where to focus. “Embracing the earth” doesn’t tell them how to relate to others. Business needs something net to have faith in, what do we have to offer?
Personally, I have faith in relationships. I have faith that if a business can build mutually beneficial relationships with its customers, its employees, its investors and the society and natural environment in which it operates then that business will survive and thrive. What do you have faith in?
David Jay is a current MBA student at the Presidio School of Management