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Who is Being Greedy?

May 2, 2006

With seemingly everyone complaining about gasoline prices, I have heard the words greed and greedy used more frequently now than I can ever remember. But I have noticed that accusations of greed are logically inconsistent, yet consistent in expanding government power to coerce some on behalf of others.

The most common inconsistency employed in accusations of greed is using the term to describe others' self-interested behavior, but never that of the accuser. The second most common inconsistency is that some attacks on those who are politically unpopular (like oil companies) are attributed to greed, yet other attacks on the same groups are inconsistent with greed.

Consider how common the "only others are greedy" approach is in public discourse. The fact that oil and gas companies would like prices to be higher is loudly and repeatedly attributed to greed, so that whenever their prices rise, they are vilified. On the other hand, the fact that gasoline consumers would like prices to be lower is not considered greedy (unless one is describing "greedy" SUV owners, of course).

However, those desires share the same essential characteristic--giving command over more resources to those making the assertion about others-and the "more for me" result differs only in which one is me. I learned the same thing about the word fair from my young children, because they only invoked it when it would benefit them (e.g., a larger allowance or a smaller list of chores).

More-for-me greed is not limited to petrochemicals. It is applied to every successful business, despite the fact that success in the marketplace means that they were less greedy than competitors. And it is are applied to both the prices of what they sell and what they buy. Buyers see greed at work whenever sellers charge more than they wish to pay, but their desire for lower prices is always different.

Workers similarly blame employers' greed when they don't offer compensation that is as high as they wish, yet their desire to be paid more is always justified. You see this dynamic over and over, in minimum wage, living wage and union campaigns, attacks on Wal-Mart, etc.

Once you pay attention, you hear one-way greed asserted all around (and probably about) you. When developers want to build new homes, they are greedy for taking good land (even though they pay for it), yet existing homeowners aren't greedy for wanting others to bear the costs of maintaining a "free" greenbelt for them. When anyone fails to support someone else's pet cause, whether through taxes or charity, they are greedy, but trying to force your views or their costs onto others who disagree is not. And the list goes on.

Emerson may have said that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," but using the same word to mean the same thing about everyone is foolish only if all that matters is more for me, regardless of its effects on you. If, however, we wish to communicate clearly and convince logically, so that cooperation can be voluntary rather than coerced, it is inconsistency that is foolish.

Consider also how often greed is used when it provides rhetorical ammunition to attack the target de jour, but forgotten when greed is inconsistent with other allegations of or actions by the same target.

Greed gets an intense workout describing current high gasoline prices, but what about when prices have fallen sharply? Is "big oil" greedy now, but not then? You cannot explain a particular change in behavior based on a cause that hasn't changed. High prices and profits are blamed on greed. Yet wouldn't greedy oil companies or greedy new entrants to the industry have built new refineries if they knew they would be highly profitable? But the number of refineries has dropped substantially. Wouldn't companies that knew they would be investigated for the price spike make sure they did nothing illegal, to greedily protect their profits from being fined or taxed away by representatives and regulators? Besides, wouldn't you expect that if illegal activities were going on, at least one of the dozens of earlier investigations would have found some evidence for it?

Greed is alleged whenever someone fails to support your particular cause. But then why do people and institutions support any causes? Greed is blamed for whatever I don't like about an organization. But target organizations are also accused of all sorts of "isms"-racism, sexism, ageism, etc.-that make no sense if they are so greedy. If a group is underpaid because it is generally disliked, hiring members of that group is a massive profit opportunity, unlikely to be left unexploited by greed demons. That is why, historically, regulated utilities, governments and non-profits, where decision-makers cannot capture the profits from such opportunities for themselves, have practiced far more egregious discrimination against dis-favored groups than have greedy profit-driven firms.

Greed has become an epithet used whenever someone wants to use their resources as they wish, rather than as others wish. But there is no moral defense for the coercion those making such accusations have in mind. And it is coercion rather than greed that is the problem. Accusations of greed do nothing but mask that reality and needlessly confuse the issue. Further, as Milton Friedman once observed: "What kind of society isn't structured on greed? The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm." The answer is voluntary arrangements, because then even the greediest can only feed their greed when they benefit others.

Once coercion is recognized as the real problem, and that we cannot change the extent of people's greed, but we can change the amount of coercion we allow in society, the contradictions promoted by those always calling others greedy comes into clearer focus. For what is their solution? Always more coercion, though always assumed to be exercised upon others for their benefit. But more coercion, which is the handmaiden of greed, is not the solution to too much coercion. The only thing that can ultimately defend each of us from others' greed is to free us from their power to dictate to us, by reserving as many choices as possible to the individuals involved. It is also the only approach consistent with our inalienable rights of self-ownership. Unfortunately, however, few things today can get you tarred and feathered faster than standing up for that truth.

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