Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“How Good is Greed?”

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The movie Wall Street by Oliver Stone has become a landmark film in American popular culture. The central character of the film is Gordon Gekko who gives a speech before the Board of Directors of a major corporation whose now famous statement that” greed is good” is often proudly and widely quoted in the American business lexicon as the mantra of capitalist free enterprise. The unbridled, unfettered and at times ruthless pursuit of wealth and profits is good. Finally someone had the audacity to say publically what the nature of business is all about.

In the December 19, 2011 issue of the National Review with a picture of Gekko on its cover, Kevin D. Williamson wrote a telling article titled Greed 2.0 explaining the nexus between Wall Street and Washington.

Let’s be real. Corporations are in the business to make profits for their shareholders. It is their nature to make more and more money and as much money as humanly and corporately possible.  Anything less is a trivial pursuit and an abdication of the central responsibility of business enterprise.

Gekko’s statement that financial”greed is good” is a declaration of independence; a statement of cold hard facts and truth about the harsh realities and true objectives of business. The corporate engines and leviathans of capitalism are out to make all the money they can to gain hegemony over their competitors, satisfy their investors and expand their global reach.

But even with all of this egotistical”dog eat dog”getting and taking by corporations in competing for profits there is a social corollary to all this. It is the hope that more altruistic and charitable social results will prevail such as jobs, prosperity for many and the overall improvement and empowerment of society and its workers. Here everybody wins and not just the owners and rulers who are “giftedly greedy.”

While greed can be good and there can be, in the words of Ayn Rand, “virtue in selfishness,” it is also important to remember that greed can be destructive and dangerous when it runs amok; when it jeopardizes the health of workers; when it is recklessly pollutes the environment, buys out the American political process; pimps politicians, circumvents regulations; blows up financial markets with mortgage derivative schemes, throws homeowners out on the street, ransacks democracy and abbreviates and abolishes the sacred rights of every day people in a free society. Greed is not good when it becomes so predatory or vulturistic that it runs roughshod over people, sucks the life blood from them, is devoid of remorse or conscience and destroys the life, health and future of every living person.

Financial greed can be good when money made is also money shared to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, care for the sick and elderly, educate the unlearned, employ the jobless, rebuild society and push the frontiers of science, medicine and industry into new vistas of invention and discovery, advance culture, the arts and the humanities and make more money.  Greed can be good when it creates greater equality in society. Greed can also be good when we possess a genuine hunger to get all the education that we can and work hard to make ourselves more humane persons.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism once said, “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” German sociologist Max Weber in the classic work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” delineates the acetic values inherent in the Christian religion and Capitalism. The twin concerns is saving and serving; making money to better oneself and using money to better serve society.

I am not anti-capitalist. There is nothing wrong with making a living or becoming wealthy. Money talks in our society and for many of us who are fortunate to get some of it now and again  it usually says “goodbye.” The problem is when persons have made all the money that they can, destroy others in the process and then confiscate the last penny of the last man to satisfy an alpha urge to gobble up everything in its greedy wake in a demented effort to have it all.

In a nation which prides itself as being charitable and religious are we not under some religious and moral imperative to share some of those resources with others in need? Should I not share my wealth with the poor who must daily fend for crumbs and bread or just greedily keep it all to myself and then throw away my leftovers rather than give it to others who are sick and starving?   Now that I have made all the money that I can what becomes of those who are left behind and struggle each day for bread and meat? I think that I lose something of my soul and compassion for my neighbor when neither my conscience nor my heart moves me to help someone else in need after my greed has gotten me more than I truly need.

When everything that a man does is in pursuit of more and more financial wealth while others have less and less of it, it should give us great pause about this notion of greed being good. I am afraid that this “greed is good at the expense of everyone else in society” philosophy is undermining an ethic of responsiblity and alienating us further from each other.

Furthermore, it is utterly paradoxical that politics can be used to protect the rule and interests of the wealthy in America while appearing to turn a mean heart and a deaf ear to protect the needs of the poor. Part of the problem is greedy politicians who would rather see people starve to death than up the ante of their corporate sponsors by challenging them to pay their fair share in taxes. And if one could poll many people in the fiscal elite of our country, numbers of them would not begrudge paying more in taxes by giving something back to society.

In a world driven by materialism where “getting and spending lays waste our powers,” where the worth and measure of a person’s life are often determined by the quality and quantity of his material possessions, the result is often an insatiable drive to reap more and more until there is nothing left for anyone else in society or no one else left in society.

Do our possessions possess us or do we possess our possessions? Perhaps we should create a society where compassion, love, empathy, justice and other respectable qualities truly possess all of us so that we become a more caring and compassionate society.

Greed is good when one can make money to honestly enrich oneself. Greed is good when money earned can also be money shared to help those who cannot fully enrich or help themselves. The saying still rings true. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” The problem is that some people in this country are so greedy that they neither want to give a fish or teach others how to fish.

Greed is good when I am driven and hungry for more in order to help myself and when I am hungrily driven to help someone else with greater needs. Then and only then will the power, benefits and effects of greed run full circle to help not only myself but help others who truly need it most.

Then can the statement, “Greed is good,” perhaps be unilaterally applied across all sectors of society. Then it will mean  that every person in society will directly or indirectly become the beneficiaries of it because it will be in the best interests of every citizen in society.


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