Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is Greed Good?

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Gordon Gekko: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."

Those words were written satirically by Oliver Stone in “Wall Street,” his damning portrait of the 1980's and I don't doubt the validity of his parody. Even those on the right recognize that consumerism as a cultural force in society assails our most basic communal ideals; our traditions, our standards, and our societal bonds between each other.

When I walk into a shoe store and gravitate towards a Nike trainer is it because I intrinsically need that shoe or the specific elements of its design? Or maybe, is it because my predisposition towards Nike, and my recognition of its consistent brand elements, fuel a desire that has been cleverly manufactured via an emotive and long standing marketing campaign?

Isn't that true of a great deal of what we consume? As somebody who has worked in PR and marketing I recognize that everything from candle stores, to fast food, to popular music isn't simply driven by our natural proclivities as consumers. The dirty secret of Capitalism is not that it impoverishes huge sways of the population, but that the fabric of our societal needs and desires are cleverly coordinated by the "manufacturing of demand."

And yet, while I look around the areas where I grew up and see an entirely different world than the one I knew as a child... devoid of active local communities and thriving small businesses, I still recognize the inherent truth of this quote from Churchill:

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"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."

I recognize that the rapid progress we have made over the past few decades is primarily fueled by enterprise, or, for lack of a better word, greed. The rise in standards of living, cures and treatments for disease, and an individualized world where we retain more, and not less autonomy to determine our own destiny... is a direct result of the freedom's we acquire from a liberalized economy. We increasingly have the autonomy to make our own decisions about our careers, about whether we attend college, and about when we get married and have children. We have earned the internal fortitude to determine our own faith, lifestyle, and political inclination in a way that transcends the traditional social constructs of the past.

I know now that even though I'm 26 I can still effectively be anything that I want to be. I can come up with a business plan tomorrow and search out investment... I can go back to school and gain qualifications to pursue a myriad of occupations. This wasn't the case for my parents or their parents.

From a philosophical perspective, if we recognize that happiness is an individual endeavor that we undertake for ourselves and not a utopian ideal that government provides... we recognize that freedom and opportunity is absolutely essential to our ability to realize our dreams... freedom and opportunity that isn't as manifestly abundant in other nations with alternative modes of governance.

Just consider these three benefits of free enterprise that we take for granted:

1) GDP per capita in the United States is considerably higher than most other nations especially when you take into account the cost of living (PPP). Planned economies that are heavily taxed, regulated, and that subsidize their industries have stagnant growth, higher unemployment, and a relatively poor standard of living.

2) Technological and medical advancements have transformed our lives. Within seconds you can surf online and connect to somebody on the other side of the world. Within hours you can be cured from diseases that 50 years ago would have killed you within days.

3) The interdendence of the global economy promotes peace and freedom. Most nations now depend so heavily on the respective economic successes of their neighbours. Just look at Russia and China or check out this story from Dubai about the way commercialism promotes freedom.

I'm certainly not arguing that free markets equate to a perfect meritocracy, and I believe that government should be involved in rectifying the inequalities and inadequacies of the market. But, in my opinion that involvment should serve to protect our primary and most effective force for progress and prosperity: free, unrestrained enterprise. The benefits for us all far exceed any alternative method of governance, or as Bill Clinton adeptly said, "the era of big government is over." As always, let me know your thoughts :).

An interesting aside which I will explore further in a future column is whether a liberalized economy endowing us with greater self-determination is consistent with the rigid brand of Conservatism that seeks to constrain our natural progress as individuals, freely determining our own value systems, religious affiliations, and expressing our sexuality in ways that are not consistent with our traditions. Perhaps via the force of progress that Republicans stimulate with their economic theories, they create the instability and fear of uncontrollable change that makes some of their aggressive social values that try to constrain progress so appealing.

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