Magazine article New Internationalist

In Greed We Trust: John F Schumaker Takes on the Philosophers of Greed

Magazine article New Internationalist

In Greed We Trust: John F Schumaker Takes on the Philosophers of Greed

Article excerpt

CHINESE philosopher Lao Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago: 'There is no calamity greater than lavish desires, no greater guilt than discontentment and no greater disaster than greed.' If he's right, we've concocted a mighty sick world for ourselves. The infamous 'greedy Eighties' turned out to be a mere dress rehearsal for one of the most spectacular greed surges in history, with jaw-dropping degrees of stock-market folly, corporate skullduggery, decadence, excess and high-octane narcissism. But, just as with the 'lessons of the Eighties', the 'lessons of the late Nineties' fall on deaf ears. The overriding lesson seems to be that greed is sweet for the economy.

As human beings continue to be reshaped by consumer culture into restless, dissatisfied, and all-desiring economic pawns, greed is being redefined as a virtue and a legitimate guiding principle for economic prosperity and general happiness. In the process, it is steadily eating away at the cornerstones of civilized society and undermining the visions, values and collective aspirations that made us strong.

However in his essay 'The Virtue of Greed', Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, maintains that without greed, our current economic and social structures would implode. He echoes the view of many economists in saying 'greed produces preferable economic outcomes most times and under most conditions'. Many economic rationalists agree that greed's proven superiority as the psychological launchpad for economic activity is due to its being the only consistent human motivation. Most alternatives have revolved around altruism, and failed. Even the respected economist Lester Thurlow, in an essay entitled 'Market Crash Born of Greed', holds that 'altruism does not seem to be congruent with the way human beings are constructed. No one has been able to construct a society where communal altruism dominates individual greed.'

When we salute all-consuming America as the standout 'growth engine' of the world, we are in many ways paying tribute to the economic wonders of greed. William Dodson's essay 'A Culture of Greed' chronicles America's pre-eminence as a greed economy. He writes that the US enjoys a relative absence of constraints, including tax and labour constraints that would otherwise burden corporations with a sense of social responsibility, plus various system advantages and historical traditions, that together allow greed to flourish and be milked for purposes of profit and growth.

Jay Phelan, an economist, biologist, and co-author of Mean Genes, feels that greed could be our ultimate undoing as a species. Yet he theorizes that evolution programmed us to be greedy since greed locks us into discontent, which in turn keeps us motivated and itchy for change. In the past at least, this favoured survival. Conversely, he believes, it would be disastrous if humans lacked greed to the extent that they could achieve a genuine state of happiness or contentment. In Phelan's view, this is because happy people tend not to do much, or crave much - poison for a modern consumer economy.

Recent years have seen the publication of a wide range of studies casting doubt on whether economic models aimed at increasing personal wealth and consumption are actually conducive to human happiness. In fact, the large-scale General Survey of the United States found that, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the percentage of people who are 'very happy' actually dropped from 34 per cent to 30 per cent, despite higher incomes, more possessions and improved living standards.

Such findings are being hailed by social critics as proof that the greed economy is toxic to well-being, and that it is hastening our slide into a collective state of 'unhappy consciousness', as sociologists call it. But they may be missing the main point if, indeed, greed and unhappiness are the fire in the belly of a consumer economy. There is little doubt that the cultural sanctification of greed is creating a deep existential void that cannot be filled - whatever the degree of material indulgence, personal achievement or private gratification. …

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