Greed Is Good: A 300-Year History of a Dangerous Idea

Not long ago, the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled. How did we come to accept it?
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Cartoon from a 1909 issue of Puck magazine. A caption read, "Dedicated to the states where child labor is still permitted." (Library of Congress)

Among MBA students, few words provoke greater consternation than “greed.” Wonder aloud in a classroom whether some practice might fairly be described as greedy, and students don’t know whether to stick up for the Invisible Hand or seek absolution. Most, by turns, do a little of both.

Such reactions shouldn’t be surprising. Greed has always been the hobgoblin of capitalism, the mischief it makes a canker on the faith of capitalists. These students' troubled consciences are not the result of doubts about the efficacy of free markets, but of the centuries of moral reform that was required to make those markets as free as they are.

We sometimes forget that the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled until just a few centuries ago. “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God,” St. Jerome said, expressing the prevailing belief in Christendom about the relative worthiness of a life devoted to trade. The choice to enter business didn’t necessarily deprive one of salvation, but it certainly hazarded his soul. “If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way then drowning,” Iago tells a lovesick Rodrigo. “Make all the money thou canst.”

The problem of money-making was not only that it favored earthly delights over divine obligations. It also enflamed the tendency to prefer our own needs over those of the people around us and, more worrisome still, to recklessly trade their best interests for our own base satisfaction. St. Thomas Aquinas, who ranked greed among the seven deadly sins, warned that trade which aimed at no other purpose than expanding one’s wealth was “justly reprehensible” for “it serves the desire for profit which knows no limit.”

It was not until the mischievous moralist Bernard Mandeville that someone attempted to gloss greed as anything other than a shameful motive. A name now largely lost to history, Mandeville became a foil for 18th-century philosophy when, in 1705, he first proposed his infamous equation: Private vices yield public benefits. It came as part of The Fable of the Bees, an allegorical poem that described a thriving beehive where dark intentions keep the wheels of commerce turning. The outrage Mandeville stoked had less to do with this causal explanation than with the assertion that only by such means could a nation grow wealthy and strong. As he contended (with characteristic bluntness) in the conclusion to the Fable:

T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniences,
Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,
Without great Vices, is a vain
EUTOPIA seated in the Brain.

Philosophers lined up to take their shots at Mandeville, whose moral paradox seemed so appalling precisely because it could not be so easily dismissed. The most notable among them was Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who struggled to distinguish the mainspring of his system from the one Mandeville proposed.

Consider how Smith describes the selfish landowner, of whom he says the “proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified.” Looking out over his fields, in his imagination, he “consumes himself the whole harvest.” The belly, however, is not so obliging. The greedy landlord may engorge himself without making a dent in his crop, and he is “obliged to distribute” the rest in payment to all those who help supply his “economy of greatness.”

This is Smith’s Invisible Hand at work. It is counterintuitive force for good that, on first glance, seems not especially different from Mandeville’s contention that private vices yield public benefits. Smith was sensitive to this fact—Bernard Mandeville did not exactly make for good company—and he struggled to create distance between them.

He did this in two ways. First, Smith emphasized the moral distinction between primary aims and secondary effects. The Fable of the Bees never explicitly claimed that vice was good in itself, merely that it was advantageous—a subtle distinction that created confusion for Mandeville’s readers which the author, a cynic through and through, made little effort to dispel.

Smith, by contrast, made abundantly clear that, as a matter of moral assessment, one should distinguish between the intentions of an actor and the broader effects of his actions. Recall the greedy landlord. Yes, the primary aims of his daily labors—vanity, sway, self-indulgence—are far from admirable. But in spite of this fact, his efforts still have the effect of distributing widely “the necessaries of life” such that, “without intending it, without knowing it,” he, and others like him, “advance the interest of society.” This is another way of saying, for Smith, the moral logic of free markets was a law of unintended consequences. The Invisible Hand gives what a greedy landlord takes.

The second move Smith made was to effectively redefine “Greed.” Mandeville—and for that matter, the Church Fathers before him—spoke in such a way that any self-interested pursuit seemed morally suspect. Smith, for his part, refused to go along. He acknowledged that pursuing our interests often entails getting what we want from other people, but he maintained that not all of these pursuits, morally speaking, were equal. We get what we want in a complex commercial society—indeed, we get to have a complex commercial society—not because we seize things outright, but because we pursue them in a way that acknowledges legal and cultural constraints. That is how we distinguish the merchant from the mugger. Both pursue their own interests, but only one does so in a manner that confers legitimacy on the gains.

Greed, as such, became an acquisitive exercise that fell on the wrong side of this divide. Some of these activities, like the mugger’s, were fairly prohibited, but those of, say, the mean-spirited merchant were checked by censure and disgrace. These forces did not eradicate selfishness, but by the moral distinction they maintained, they helped establish a new ideal of the upstanding businessman.

That ideal was famously embodied by Smith’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin presented himself as the epitome of a new American Dream, a man who emerged from “Poverty & Obscurity” to attain “a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World.” Franklin found nothing to be ashamed of in riches and repute, provided they were turned toward some broader purpose. His success allowed him to retire from the printing business at 42 so that he might spend the balance of his life on initiatives—civic, scientific, philanthropic—that all enhanced the common good.

The example of Franklin, and those like him, gave reason for optimism to those who understood the mixed blessing of free -markets. “Whenever we get a glimpse of the economic man, he is not selfish,” the great English economist Alfred Marshall wrote toward the end of the 19th century. “On the contrary, he is generally hard at work saving capital chiefly for the benefit of others.” By “others,” Marshall principally meant the members of one’s family, but he was also making a larger point about how our “self-interest” can expand and evolve when we have achieved financial security. The “love of money,” he declared, encompasses “an infinite variety of motives,” which “include many of the highest, the most refined, and the most unselfish elements of our nature.”

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John Paul Rollert is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Chicago's Booth Business School. He has written for The New York Times, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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