Capitalism punishes greed

Many theologians complain that capitalism promotes greed. Clearly, greed is evil. Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one is affluent does his life consist of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) And Paul wrote, “Therefore, treat the parts of your earthly body as dead to sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)

In my last article I responded to the frequent criticism by theologians that capitalism enriches the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This one addresses the issue of the sin of greed, the second of Dr. Mike Frost’s five reasons he thinks capitalism is not Christian. Frost quoted Michael Moore who said this in his documentary on capitalism:

“Capitalism is the legalization [of] greed...If you don’t put certain structures in place or restrictions on those parts of our being that come from that dark place, then it gets out of control. Capitalism does the opposite of that. It not only doesn’t really put any structure or restriction on it. It encourages it, it rewards it.”

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Most theologians equate greed with self-interest, knowing that Adam Smith had written in his classic The Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Therefore, capitalism promotes greed.

But Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments before Wealth of Nations and in it he said, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” How could a man who promoted virtue in his first book promote greed in his next?

He didn’t.

The generally accepted definition of greed is an excessive desire for more money. Before capitalism, people thought any desire for money above what one needed to stay alive was greed because they held to the ancient economics that said one person can grow rich only at the expense of others. For example, my eating an extra slice of bread takes bread out of the mouth of someone else. But capitalism taught us that prudence, skill and innovation can create new wealth that doesn’t take from others.

The key to greed is the word “excessive.” Few theologians would argue that the desire for money to feed, clothe and house oneself and family is greed. After all, Paul wrote, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8) The Bible condemns a love of money, but also commends earning enough to share with others and leave a legacy for one’s children: “A good person leaves an inheritance to his grandchildren…” (Proverbs 13:22).

Smith equated self-interest with that natural desire to provide for the needs of one’s family. But what if the standard of living one has attained barely keeps the family alive? Should we be satisfied because desiring more than bare survival is greed? If so, then any society wealthier than the tribes of the Amazon jungle is guilty of the most egregious greed.

We need to keep in mind that attributing greed to someone is claiming that we have God’s ability to see the motives of others, which we don’t have. Take the example of an athlete in the National Football league, such as Tom Brady who earns $15 million each season. Can we really know that greed for money drives Brady? Or does the exercise of his highly valued talent motivate him? Only God knows. We tend to attribute good motives to people we like and evil ones to those we dislike. Only our charity and imagination limit us. Envious people naturally resent the rich and will attribute evil motives to them.

Considering that we can’t know the motives of others; we need to provide for our families and others; we should save for the future and for illnesses; we should exercise God given gifts even if they make us wealthy; a more refined definition of greed is a desire for money that causes us to act immorally to get it.

Smith understood that businessmen can be greedy. He wrote in The Wealth of Nations:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

What was his solution? Certainly not to run to government for more regulations of business because he understood that businessmen can buy politicians cheaply.

Smith recommended fighting greed with competition. Remember that Smith said self-interest drives businessmen. But in a free market, competition forces greedy businessmen to labor to satisfy their customers because if they don’t, a competitor that serves customers better will take them away. The greedy businessman will grow poorer and be unable to satisfy his self-interest, let alone his greed.

Capitalism doesn’t prevent businessmen from being greedy. Only Christ can do that. But it prevents the businessman from hurting others through his greed. Moore was wrong, as are most theologians. Capitalism suppresses greed.

Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.

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