Monday, May 31, 2004

Is Greed the Engine of Capitalism?

If I were a liberal or a lemming, I would say I am a C-SPAN 'junkie,' but since I am neither, and abhor the debasement of language and thought, and in particular the suggestion that every habit is an addiction, I will just say that I am a regular C-SPAN viewer. This morning's Washington Journal on C-SPAN 1, with Steve Scully at the helm, was particularly excellent. I had to tear myself away at 5:50 AM to get my ride in before old Sol got too uppity. (It is starting to get a tad WARM out here in the Sonoran desert, but it's that famous DRY warmth.) One of the C-SPAN guests was a sweet old lady by the name of Mary Alice Herbert, the vice presidential candidate of the Socialist Party - USA.

She spouted a lot of nonsense, but the assertion that really got my blood up was the claim that, and I quote from my notes, "The engine of capitalism is greed." This is no better than saying that the engine of socialism is envy. Greed (avarice) and envy are vices. A vice is a habit. Habits don't float in the air; they are dispositions of agents. A greedy person is one who is disposed toward inordinate acquisition, while an envious person is one who is disposed to feel diminished by the success or well-being of others to the extent of hating them for their success or well-being. Clearly, one can support, and participate in, a free market economy without being greedy. Anyone who is reading this post is most likely an example. Equally, one can support, and participate in, a socialist economy without being envious. Think of all the good Russians who really believed the Commie nonsense, made their selfless contributions, but ended up in the Gulag anyway. Freda Utley is good on this.

Greed is not what drives a free market economy; indeed, greed is positively harmful to such an economy. Take Enron. The greed of Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, et al. led to the collapse of the company and to massive losses for the shareholders. Don't confuse greed with acquisitiveness. A certain amount of acquistiveness is reasonable and morally acceptable. Greed is inordinate acquisitiveness, where 'inordinate' carries not only a quantitative, but also a normative, connotation: the greedy person's acquisitiveness harms himself and others. Think of the miser, and the hoarder. What's more, greed cannot be measured by one's net worth. Bill Gate's net worth is in the billions. But he is not greedy as far as I can tell: he benefits millions and millions of people with his software, the employment and investment opportunities he provides, and the vast sums he donates to charities.

C-SPAN viewers who called in to object that socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried were met with the standard Marxist response, namely, that capitalist encirclement, capitalist opposition, is responsible for socialism's failure. This is an example of the classic double standard leftists employ. The problems of capitalism are blamed on capitalism, but the problems of socialism are ALSO blamed on capitalism. Another form of the double standard involves the comparison of capitalist reality, not with socialist reality, but with socialist ideality, socialist fiction, socialist utopia. A reality to reality comparison issues in an unfavorable judgment on socialism.

Finally, there is a problem with the sort of 'bottom up' or democratic socialism that people like Herbert espouse. This is supposed to avoid the problems attendant upon the sort of 'top down' socialism attempted in the Soviet Union. The latter required a revolutionary vanguard unequal in power to those on whom it sought to impose socialism -- in obvious contradiction to the ultimate socialist desideratum of equality. Simply put, if equality is the end, the means cannot be dictatorship by the Party or by one man of steel. No entity, once it gains power, is likely to give it up. This is why Castro still rules his island paradise, forty five years after his 1959 ousting of Battista. The will to power is the will to the preservation and expansion of power.

Therefore, many socialists nowadays call themselves democratic socialists. But this smacks of a contradiction in terms. If socialism is to replace capitalism -- as opposed to being confined to isolated pockets of society such as communes -- then it must be imposed by force by a central authority. For there are just too many of us who cannot see why material (as opposed to formal) equality is even a value.