Monday, January 2, 2012

Systems of Greed

I frequently have political discussions with my friends.  Several years ago, I was discussing the economy with two of my friends, and also which systems of government work best.  After stating they were in favor of improving the economy at all costs, and giving theories about how best to do that, they proclaimed their reasoning boiled down to, "Because I'm greedy".  The bluntness of this statement shocked me a little bit.  It came across as a raw truth about their motivation, and while I wasn't necessarily surprised at the proclamation, I was shocked at the corrosiveness of the statement.  Several years have past since that conversation, and I am only reminded of it because of video I recently came across.  The video is Milton Friedman discussing how greed is the basis of Capitalism, and how this is a good thing.  You can see the video here:

In short, his argument is that Greed is human nature.  Any system not run on greed has not been successful.  Capitalism is run on greed and it has been the most sucessful of all economic systems.   All political systems have run on greed.  Therefore greed is good and so is Capitalism.

He is a good talker with an enchanting rhythm, strong presence, and uses alot of loaded rhetoric to get his point across, however his argument is flawed on several points.

While greed is a PART of human nature, it is not the essence of human nature.  Humans are also happy, sad, angry, kind, compassionate, excitable, jealous, prideful, loving, charitable, etc.  To base an economic system on greed because it reflects human nature is flawed because human nature is much more complex than a single emotion.  While I conceed that greed has its place in life, it is flawed to say that it is the basis of human nature.  If we are to build an economic system to reflect human nature, we must also build in the other aspects which represent how mankind functions.  This would be a very complex system, much more so than the current one.  A start to remedy the current situation would be to acknowledge our system is built on greed and try to incorporate another emotion.  It would be wise to include greed's opposite, namely compassion, as it would lend a balance to a lopsided system.  While such a system does not yet exist, it does not mean a transition cannot begin.

A system built solely on greed is  imbalanced as it does not take into account the other complex emotions inherent in human nature.  An imbalanced system will self destruct as the number of people who lose out in that system grows exponentially.  Friedman points out that all other economic systems have failed and uses this to support Capitalism.  He also states that all other systems are built on greed.  I would argue that capitalism is no better, it just hasn't been around long enough to fail.  What we've witnessed over the last few years demonstrates this.  Friedman might argue, "Who is going to build a system based on anything other than greed"?  He has a point.  When greed is so prevalently rewarded as it is in the current system it is hard to achieve any other standard.  When the system falls apart however, there is no other option but to reconstruct under different principles.  As humans we should strive to do this before the system malfunctions to a point where it forces us to do so.  The change needs to come from the bottom up to reward acts that are beneficial everyone's state of being rather than those acts that are beneficial only to the individual.  I support building an economic system that reflects human nature just as Friedman does, but I disagree that humans are mearly greedy scoundrels.  Lets begin to act according to the virtues that we all agree will bring humanity to a better future.

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