Ode to greed: Down to 6 deadly sins

By William Safire

January 5, 1986

William Safire

O Greed! You have never had a decent press. For centuries -yea, millennia – you have been blacklisted as one of the seven sins, usually under the names of Avarice or Covetousness, that lead to the death of the spirit. I hold no brief for Anger, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Envy or Sloth – certainly not Sloth – all worthy objects of St. Gregory’s wrath when he jotted down the list in 600 A.D. However, in the light of a strange new turn the world is taking, the time has come for a re-examination of the case against Greed with a view toward its delisting. Greed is a hunger for ”more.” Moral philosophers have characterized this natural human urge to accumulate the accoutrements of the good life, or at least the comfortable life, as a slavering grasp for more than one’s share. Implicit in this derogation of Greed is the idea that everyone should have the same portion of worldly goods and it is morally corrupt to want to snatch away the other guy’s little pile.

Along came Karl Marx, exploiting the universal knock put on Greed by promising to divvy everything up so that nobody would have more than the next guy. But wherever his followers have put this anti-Greed notion into practice, most people’s little pile of food dwindled.

For 75  years, commissars in Moscow have been blaming the weather for the need to import food from countries where Greed is the driving force of the economic system. But Nature is not to blame: the fault lies in denying human nature.

As a result of the repeated failures of the Greed-bashers, consider what is happening in the world:

IN CHINA, where the redistribution schemes of Mao led to famine and depression and misdirected energies, a hundred flowers of prosperity are beginning to bloom. The reason is that peasants have been permitted to let Greed determine their work output, and this self-serving idea – apologized for as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” by Deng – will, if there is no Great Leap Backward, allow a billion individuals to support themselves.

In Britain, where a powerful socialist labor movement led the nation into the Welfare State and near-bankruptcy, union members from the coal mines to Fleet Street are undercutting their ideological leaders. State-owned companies and utilities are going private again, as the man in the street has come to understand that it is more blessed to produce than to distribute.

IN FRANCE, the Socialists came to power, nationalized the banks, and put the controlled economy through a wringer. In a few years, the Socialists had to backtrack madly in hopes of staying in power, and now the nouveaux economistes are demanding abolishment of state ownership, reduction of taxes and state services, and a realization that a Frenchman coined the term laissez faire.

Even in Russia, where enforced equality is still espoused at least in theory (while a New Class has risen to ride herd on the avarice of the worker) talk of reform is in the air. In Tbilisi, where the state buses run few and far between, the buses are being sold to the bus drivers; if such an experiment in enterprise works in Georgia, a great many card-carrying party members freezing in lonely bus stops are going to be glad to let avaricious drivers make a profit.

IN THIS CAULDRON of boiling change, what cooks?

Greed is finally being recognized as a virtue. Dressed in euphemism – “the profit motive” or “growth incentives” or “the entrepreneurial spirit” – our not-so-deadly sin turns out to be the best engine of betterment known to man.

The world has learned that to concentrate on divvying-up diminishes us all, while scrambling to help ourselves helps others; without Greed, there is no wherewithal for Generosity.

By hustling to improve our station, by indulging the desire for necessities that becomes a lust for luxuries, by competing to make our pile bigger, we engage in the great invisible handshake that enlarges pies, lifts all boats and enriches us without impoverishing our neighbor.

THE ROOT of the word greed is “hunger,” and the cure for world hunger is the driving force of Greed. Yes, governments can enforce limits and moralists can urge moderation – I recognize there can be too much of a good thing – but only a hearty welcome to the demands of the truly greedy can insure ample supply for the truly needy.

Okay, we’re down to six deadly sins. In a world in which so many suffer from lack of self-esteem, anybody want to take a crack at Pride?

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