Since the financial crisis in September of ’08 we’ve heard a lot about greed being the underlying problem that brought it about. Financial institutions engaged in practices that were highly profitable but that were also fraught with risk, and eventually the risk of disaster became a reality.
Accusations of greed in our free market society are nothing new, of course. In the 2008 primary elections, for example, John Edwards made this the thrust of his campaign. There were “two Americas”, he had said in 2003. It was a classic “haves” and “have-nots” assessment: Some folks worked, other folks reaped the rewards. Some folks possessed wealth, others lived paycheck to paycheck. In the 2008 campaign, he promoted this sort of populism with particular vitriol. There are, he asserted, the very rich and powerful, and then there is everyone else. And they do not want anyone (like Edwards) to stand up for the interest of the oppressed have-nots. They want his message squelched and so they “try to kill the messenger”. Really?
To be sure, there was and is greed on Wall Street. There are greedy CEOs. There are indeed people whose self-interest leads to the demise of the interests of others. But even if one could conclude that it was greed, and only greed, that led to the financial crisis (a dubious proposition), and even if the situation in our society is as dire as Edwards has maintained, is the reaction to it that we have frequently seen really justified?
We hear much about the need for “social justice”. We hear much about “working families” who have many difficulties in life. These terms themselves imply things that aren’t necessarily true, or certainly aren’t true in every instance. Do you really think that, as a general rule, families that have wealth don’t work? Isn’t it possible that they possess wealth because they work, and that they work very hard?
And what is wealth? What does it mean to be “rich”? There are many upper middle class people that do not consider themselves to be “wealthy” or “rich” that would be perceived to be so by many others in a lower economic strata. President Obama’s quasi-definition of the rich being an annual income of $250,000.00 or more notwithstanding, the rich are deemed to be rich on a subjective basis that goes something like this: Do they have a lot more property than I do, and do they have a much greater income than I do? If so, they are probably rich.
Anger towards the rich (the haves, whoever they are) by everyone else (the have-nots) is, unfortunately, usually motivated by envy. That envy is fed by rhetoric like Edwards uses. It is fed by notions that suggest that simply because disparity exists, injustice must exist as well. Envy is at the heart of the class warfare that some are always attempting to foment. The greedy pursue things for themselves with little regard one way or the other for anyone else. The envious, however, want what someone else has, and, failing to get it, can be just as desirous that no one else should possess it either.
Envy is no more virtuous than greed. It may even be worse.