Lessons From Greed

by Dave Johnson

Conservatives say greed is a good thing. But the lessons of history, religion, philosophy, psychology and even biology say it is not.

I am visiting England this week.  Today I'm in York, and I toured the York Minstrel which is a huge 13th-century cathedral. Down in the crypt they have on display a 12th-century tablet, or "relief," called the Doomstone. This is a limestone carving from the even-older Norman cathedral that previously stood on the same site. The Doomstone depicts demons constantly stirring a boiling cauldron, while damned souls are pushed into it from above. Two of the damned souls carry bags of money, symbolizing greed.

You might or might not know that the Christian church considers greed to be a deadly sin. Christianity and other religions have a few other things to say about people grabbing too much for themselves and not taking care of each other, especially the less fortunate among us. They have a lot to say about greed and love of money and sharing and he harm that comes to all of us from ignoring these time-honored lessons. You can take what they say literally or metaphorically -- either way they are making an important point that comes from God, the universe or just the wisdom of elders.

Biologically we survived and evolved as a species by living in communities where we took care of and watched out for each other. Imagine libertarians trying to survive an ice age or a famine outside of a community of people watching out for and taking care of each other.

Humans are clearly harmed psychologically by greed. Do I have to go into detail about what happens to people who value money over other people and other pursuits? We see it all around us.

The 1980s film, Wall Street has a speech by Gordon Gecko in which he extolls the virtues of greed. The speech and movie were meant to serve as a warning that the new Reagan era was bringing in a destructive culture of greed that was harming us. People were shown losing their jobs, pensions, and self-respect. And it touched on how the companies being taken over by Wall Street greed were being destroyed, their products cheapened, their assets stripped, their employees and customers cheated.

The movie wasn’t supposed to serve as a role model but 30 years later it is clear that the warnings went unheeded, and now our discourse, society, institutions, country and democracy are torn apart by the ravages of greed over the progressive values of taking care of and watching out for and taking care of each other.

Dave Johnson  is a Fellow at Campaign for America's Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy. He is also a Senior Fellow with Renew California.