Caution: long post….
Greed is wanting more than we have, not because we need more, but simply because we’re dissatisfied with what we have.
While Dante defined envy as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs,” modern usage stems from another meaning: a painful, even resentful, knowledge that someone else has something that we lack, and we want it, too.
But “Greed is good,” Gordon Gecko said, and he wasn’t far wrong. More accurately, we should never underestimate the power of greed to do good in the world. Envy is a part of this, in a way; it’s another aspect of greed: it can give a focus to what it is we want that’s more than what we have: sometimes we want that specific thing that he has, if only because he has it already. Adam Smith understood this; these are his invisible hand.
To greatly oversimplify things, here’s how that invisible hand works.
A man wants something he doesn’t have; he may not be entirely clear on what it is, but he can describe his shortfall at least to some extent. Another man offers to develop and then make a widget which he says will generally satisfy the first man’s shortfall. He’ll then sell it to the first man if he will pay for the labor, materials, and a little extra for a profit. The two agree on the terms of the transaction, and in short order, one man has a widget he didn’t have before, and the other man has some money he didn’t have before.
Another man sees the first man’s widget and tells the second man he wants one like that. A conversation occurs, and in short order the third man has a widget, too, and the second man has a bit more money.
Soon a fourth man approaches the second and says that if the second will make a bunch of widgets, the fourth man will buy them all and resell them elsewhere. Now lots of people have widgets, the widget maker has much more money, and a seller is making money.
A fifth man comes along and says this to all those who’ve bought widgets: “All your widgets look alike. I have a fine selection of gee-gaws that you each can add to your widget to make it a truly unique possession, which no one else has.” And others see the gussied up widgets and want—and conclude transactions to obtain—widgets that are just like this man’s, or just like that man’s.
A sixth man says he can improve on the widget: he can make a Widget DeLuxe, or a wodget, either of which is better than even a gussied-up widget. And so on.
All of those original players—buyers, developers, manufacturers, sellers—are better off for these free exchanges: each has, as a result of the exchanges, something of value to him that he didn’t have before, and he got it at a price he considered worth paying—whether in labor or in money—in order to get that thing. On top of that, additional jobs were created—additional sellers; manufacturer helpers; after-market developers, manufacturers, and sellers—and these new job holders are all better off than they were before: they have jobs, now, and the wherewithal to buy widgets, if they wish.
In all of this economic growth, in all of this wealth increase, greed and envy played their roles in driving the system. Every participant acted on his own self-interest, every participant did what he did to satisfy himself alone. Yet as a result of the interactions of these individual self-interests, these individual greeds and envies, everyone in the system became better off.
It’s true that the wealth distribution was uneven. In this simple scenario, the original widget maker seems to have the largest gain, and the sellers seem to have the next largest. But even the meanest widget buyer is better off now than he was before, and he’s better off in a way that would have been impossible without this commerce: he has a widget he couldn’t even contemplate before because it didn’t exist before, and he has options for a better widget or a wodget, as well.
Notice a critical aspect here, though. This system was a free market, within which participants to an exchange were able to come together and reach their agreements along parameters that were entirely agreeable to them, and to them alone. No one was forced into an exchange he didn’t want, no one was barred from an exchange in which he wanted to participate, and each one was free to act solely on his own desires.
Greed and envy are two-edged swords, though, and they certainly can overwhelm a free market. There is a role for government intervention, and it is to protect all of us from the plainly rapacious. But that intervention must work to preserve free market mechanisms—the very mechanisms that channel our venalities and convert them to accidental strengths for our common good. This kind of government intervention must enforce contracts, and it must ensure transparency so that every participant can readily understand what it is he is getting—or selling—when he enters that market for his own selfish purposes. But it must leave each participant free to act in his own self-interest.
When the market isn’t free, when the market is centrally controlled—even when the market is nominally free, but government intervenes too much—the capacity of commerce to turn greed and envy to our common betterment is overwhelmed. When government intervention favors this or that selected group, for instance—one group didn’t get as wealthy as another, let’s say—then our greed and envy are simply channeled away from functional (if accidental) cooperation for the common good toward simple, resentful, isolated greed and envy: “Why do they get special treatment? Why can’t I, too?” Members of the other groups—whether government-designated groups or self-styled (now that government has set a precedent of special groups for special treatment)—stop working to gain the wherewithal to buy, they stop working to produce. These groups insist, instead, that government intervene in their favor, too. In short order, the market is no longer producing, and wealth and well-being deteriorate.
Thus, government intervention too easily suppresses the essential cooperative nature that is men and women acting in our own self-interest—including our own greed and envy—to arrive at exchanges voluntarily between those of us who want and those of us who have, or can produce, or can create. Intervention cannot look to control the forces of the free market, to control by government fiat our greed and envy, without destroying that free market.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,” James Madison wrote. But we’re not, and they don’t; we must limit government’s market interventions, as we must government’s power generally. Greed and envy are part of our nature, but only a free market has the capability of channeling those base parts to our collective benefit.