With power comes money, with money comes greed. These are about the only lyrics that I can reproduce from this Ice Cube song and still keep this a family friendly blog. These lyrics mirror the title of an event that will be happening at New York’s Symphony Space on March 14. The program entitled Selected Shorts: Tales of Money, Greed, and Power with NPR’s Planet Money features a wide-ranging evening of funny, fun, smart, lively, and poignant tales about money and greed performed by Broadway and Hollywood actors. (For more information www.symphonyspace.org/event/6966-selected-shorts-tales-of-money-greed-and-power-with-nprs-planet-money-)
I see this blog as an educational tool, not something to promote business, but Symphony Space is a not-for-profit organization and a good friend is the marketing director there so I am taking a liberty just this once. But the idea that money, power and greed are intertwined is an important one to discuss. As Professor Walter Williams from George Mason University stated in a blog post in January, It turns out that it’s human greed that gets the most wonderful things done. And Dr. Williams is probably right. While we do wonderful things out of love, but generally those are done for an individual. Sometimes amazing things happen out of fear. But greed is something more than an emotional reaction – it is considered a choice. In fact, greed is considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But why does greed have such a bad rap.
The Christian church considered greed to be a sin not because it was bad to pursue wealth, status or power, but because the focus on these mortal goals took away from one’s pursuit of a higher association with God. In this way, greed was not defined as theft, dishonesty or treason (or what might have been termed Avarice), but rather being concerned with the here and now more than with the afterlife.
While greed may be problematic to theologians, in an economic sense greed can be very good. As Dr. Williams points out, it is greed that encourages ranchers to brave winter storms to ensure that their cattle are fed, and that leads farmers to toil in the blazing sun to ensure that their crops survive. They don’t do this out of some sort of love for consumers, but rather to generate as much wealth as possible for their families to spend on the products and services that they desire.
In other words, greed is what drives the Invisible Hand that Adam Smith first wrote about in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Therefore greed is what has allowed modern society to develop and thrive. Specialization and economies of scale allow us to produce much more with fewer resources. Prior to the 1700s, most family groups were pretty self-reliant. They produced most of their own food, most of their own clothing. Transportation such as there was came through horses and oxen that were raised and cared for by the family. After the Industrial Revolution, people were able to specialize and to hone their skills, thereby increasing their productivity greatly. But specialization cannot happen without greed. Why would someone risk their capital, or save and invest, or try something new unless they felt that they would see a disproportionate reward? Capitalists, entrepreneurs and artisans do what they do because they want more – they want to see their business profit and they want a better life for their families.
Pulling society out of poverty is an amazing thing. As I have written in these pages before, it is mind boggling to compare the relative wealth of an American farmer today to one in the 1800s, or even the 1930s. In the same way, the workhouses and tenements of the Lower East Side provided a far superior life to the fields of Italy, Ireland and Poland. No matter how much one may dislike the character of Chinese factories, they are allowing millions of people a road to a much better life than could have been had in villages in the interior. All of this comes about from the desire to obtain more – or from greed.
So please go and see the good folks at Symphony Space. But remember that you are sitting in a heated space, on a comfortable chair, under electric lights, and enjoying a nice glass of Chardonnay all brought to you by your good friend Greed.