Where does Greed come from?

Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009

Rothbard argues that greed comes from scarcity.

It's true: greed has had a very bad press. I frankly don’t see anything wrong with greed. I think that the people who are always attacking greed would be more consistent with their position if they refused their next salary increase. I don’t see even the most Left-Wing scholar in this country scornfully burning his salary check. In other words, "greed" simply means that you are trying to relieve the nature given scarcity that man was born with. Greed will continue until the Garden of Eden arrives, when everything is superabundant, and we don’t have to worry about economics at all. We haven’t of course reached that point yet; we haven’t reached the point where everybody is burning his salary increases, or salary checks in general. So the question then becomes: what kind of greed are we going to have, "productive greed," where people produce and voluntarily exchange their products with others? Or exploitative greed, organized robbery and predation, where you achieve your wealth at the expense of others? These are the two real alternatives.

... In contrast to the age-old institution of statism, of the political means, free-market capitalism arrived as a great revolutionary movement in the history of man. For it came into a world previously marked by despotism, by tyranny, by totalitarian control. Emerging first in the Italian city states free market capitalism arrived full scale with the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, a revolution that brought about a remarkable release of creative energy and productive ability, an enormous increase of production. You can call that "greed" if you wish; you can attack as "greed" the desire of someone on a poverty level who wishes to better his lot.

... As a result, I, with the same position I had then, have been shifted bodily from extreme right to left without any effort on my part at all. Decentralization; community control; attack on Leviathan government, on bureaucracy, on government interference with each person’s life; attack on the state-ridden educational system; criticism of unionism, which is tied up with the state; opposition to militarism, war, imperialism, and conscription; all these things that the Left is now beginning to see, is precisely what we "extreme Right-Wingers" have been saying all along. And, as far as "decentralization" goes, there is nothing that is so decentralized as the free market, and perhaps this too will come to the attention of the public.

... State capitalism inevitably creates all sorts of problems which become insoluble; as Mises again has pointed out, one intervention into the system to try to solve problems only creates other problems, which then demand further interventions, etc., and so the whole process keeps snowballing until you have a completely collectivist, totalitarian system.

... It’s beginning to be seen, for example, that the Welfare State does not tax the rich and give to the poor; it taxes the poorer to give to the richer, and the poor in essence pay for the Welfare State. It is beginning to be seen that foreign intervention is essentially a method of subsidizing favored American corporations instead of helping out the poor in the undeveloped countries. And it is now becoming evident that the Keynesian policies only succeeded in bringing us to the present impasse of inflation-cum-recession, and that our Olympian economists have no way of getting out of the present mess at all, except to cross their fingers and their econometric models and pray.

... Thus, we have a lot of crises looming in America, some on their way, others imminent or already here. All of these crises are the products of intervention, and none of them can really be solved by more intervention... The Great Depression has always been considered as the product of free-market capitalism of the 1920s. It was the result of very heavy government intervention in the l920s, an intervention, by the way, that is very similar to the current intervention. In the 1920s, we had the newly imposed Federal Reserve System, which all the Establishment economists of the day assured us would eliminate all future depressions; the Federal Reserve System would henceforth manipulate prices and the money supply and iron out business cycles forever. Nineteen twenty-nine and the Great Depression were the results of that manipulation guided by the wise hands of Establishment economics--they were not the results of anything like free-market capitalism.

... In short, the advent of industrialism and the Industrial Revolution has irreversibly changed the prognosis for freedom and statism. In the pre-industrial era, statism and despotism could peg along indefinitely, content to keep the peasantry at subsistence levels and to live off their surplus. But industrialism has broken the old tables; for it has become evident that socialism cannot run an industrial system, and it is gradually becoming evident that neomercantilism, interventionism, in the long run cannot run an industrial system either. Free-market capitalism, the victory of social power and the economic means, is not only the only moral and by far the most productive system; it has become the only viable system for mankind in the industrial era. Its eventual triumph is therefore virtually inevitable.

A Future of Peace and Capitalism, Murray N. Rothbard, 1973, http://mises.org/daily/1559.

See also: Does Gravity Cause Plane Crashes?, Greed, Selfishness, and Self-interest, and The fallacy of a “mixed” economy.