Greed is the hot-button word, liberally applied to any distasteful thing that occurs in western society. The next time a rich person does anything bad, no matter what, it’s something to do with greed. We are supposed to believe that greed is the ultimate evil in society and if we would only find a way to curb it, the world would be a better place.

This means libertarianism, that cold, calculating smokescreen for avarice, racism and any number of other nasty things, is a big no-no. Critics accuse libertarians of celebrating the 1%, the ‘job creators’ and decrying the welfare-extracting parasitical poor. Liberty is the ideology of greed.

It’s hardly appropriate to call this view ‘wrong’, since it is so confused in the first place. We’re not even talking the same language.

Is one referring to a particular kind of self-interest that goes beyond a ‘normal’ level of desire for wealth, or for self-interest in general? Either way, the notion that the state is the answer to the problems of greed is bizarre and unfounded.

I’m going to define these concepts, as unfashionable as that practice has been lately.

Libertarianism is a commitment to the non-aggression principle, which states that individuals and groups may not aggress against other individuals’ person or property.

Notice there is nothing in there about ‘loving business executives’, or anything else the critics believe can be implied by the anti-government, anti-taxation and anti-welfare state positions libertarians take. Commenting on the aggressive nature of an action is not a comment on anything else: if one says it is wrong for someone to steal to pay for a lawnmower, one is not arguing against the use of lawnmowers.

When a libertarian says that a rich person has the right to keep his legitimately earned wealth without molestation, he is not making a value judgment of the rich person nor his motivations for wealth accumulation. OK? I hope we are clear.

‘Greed’ is defined:

  1. intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.

There is so much going on in this definition that the critics need to be clear on what it actually means. Firstly, you can’t talk about greed in any general way without confusing the issue: are you talking about true greed, which is ‘intense’, or general self-interest?

The left in particular likes to talk about greed very generally. Literally, they will say the problem on this Earth is greed, that capitalism is an economic system that encourages and thrives on it, and that institutionalised altruism would serve us much better.

There is no way we can come close to reconciliation if we talk about greed generally, as in simple self-interest. There are only two options: a man must make his own decisions, or another man must make decisions for him. Either a man responds to his own self-interest or allows another person’s interests to supersede his own.

In an economic sense, a free action can only be born of self-interest. Even actions widely considered to be ‘altruistic’, such as giving to charity or feeding the homeless, are self-interested as the individual’s principles dictate their feelings about it – not giving to charity would elicit undesirable feelings of shame or guilt on their part, so it is in their self-interest to do it. Actions that individuals would ‘rather not’ perform, such as working 12 hours a day in order to eat, are also born of self-interest as they are the best options ahead of many less desirable alternatives. The only other type of action is that done under the influence of coercion, or threat of violence. This is inherently un-free, and the altruistic tendencies of the actor and the aggressor, as the left see them, are completely irrelevant.

There are, of course, differences in principle between self-interest actions: individuals can be concerned only by money, whilst others are more concerned by community, family or religious values. But either way, they are still self-interested.

Progressives have hardly tried to make this distinction: they lump everyone together into groups, ‘the rich’ being the main target of their distaste. Many enter the market with the view to serve others, with the money they make merely representing an added bonus to their work. Will the leftist deny this? Probably not, and they may even encourage such behavior. However, their policy recommendations are not in the same line of thinking. They can only think in terms of money, and how it is distributed. Many argue for a mandated living wage, paid for by the company. Others argue for a government guaranteed job or even income, without realizing that none of this is altruistic in their own definition.

Giving to charity is altruistic, but forcing someone to give to charity is not. Therefore, it is simply disingenuous to argue that those who object to their wealth being stripped from them by the point of a gun are greedy.

There is hardly even a concession that to create wealth, even the money-centered individuals and parties had to provide value to others. In a free-market, one cannot juice money out of people against their will. Market-actors have to correctly anticipate the demands of consumers and deliver them products and services that make their lives better. If they don’t step up, their customers will take their business elsewhere. The only way to serve oneself, in a market economy, is to serve others’ interests in turn.

Libertarianism caters to the alternative, un-naïve view of self-interest: that not only is self-interest here to stay, it is central to what a human being is. Libertarians argue for a society that encourages peaceful, beneficial self-interest and discourages aggressive, conflict-creating self-interest.

There is no guarantee that market actors will not try to cheat others, but the giant statist vision cannot guarantee that political actors will not try either. Humans have a natural desire to get something for nothing. This can only be tempered by principles, and if a culture does not have these principles embedded in the first place, no amount of wealth distribution will curb it.

However, the market rewards cooperation, value-creation and trustworthiness. Market actors may be able to get away with nasty business in the short-term, but will be worse-off in the long term. Shoddy businesses practices and scams, if not encouraged by the state, are numerous, but rarely prosper.

Other leftists may take the slightly more realistic view of greed: that only the most intense and careless forms of self-interest are damaging. For example, simply striving for a raise so as to find a better education for one’s children is not ‘greedy’. That one is fairly obvious, but exactly how much money should you seek before you should be considered greedy?

The answer is that it is the wrong question altogether. One cannot make a principled distinction between greedy wealth and non-greedy wealth. Progressives seem to be under the impression that those living on ‘poverty’ wages are not greedy, but merely trying to make a comfortable life for themselves and their families, and the wealthy CEOs are acting on a reptilian, guttural impulse to accumulate ‘stuff’ that is only superficially valuable.

As Milton Friedman said about greed: it’s always the other guy who’s greedy, not me!

It is not obvious that the rich man desires wealth more intensely than the poor man. It is an extremely base understanding of motivation and reveals practically no understanding of economics. Investors and entrepreneurs do not use resources the same way the lower wealth consumers do. Although some do stuff their money under a mattress, in a sense, most either save it (reducing interest rates that boosts investment) and/or reinvest it into projects that create value for others in order to make their wealth sustainable.

The market encourages principled drive, but a purely monetary drive is still beneficial, overall, to the economy and to the poor.

The fact that the left offers the state as the cure for greed is frankly laughable. The state encourages the kind of greed that steps on others, and that creates no value. With no regulation in the form of personal wealth on the line, political decisions are made arbitrarily and with little regard to the demands of the populace. Market actors have to think twice before every business decision: catering to investors in one scenario may alienate some consumers, but may be necessary in the long term, and vice-versa. A politician has no personal investment in his decisions, so if someone wants to pay him to pass a certain law for their benefit, where is the incentive not to? He will not lose out if the whole thing goes sour. There is really only the vague threat of being voted out in 4 years time, by then he’ll have made his wealth.

The state is far, far more dangerous than the market. The endgame of every political decision is the gun in someone’s face. If an alcohol company wants to have an edge over their competition in the market, they have to improve their product. However, if there’s a state, they can take the cheaper option of lobbying for cannabis prohibition, creating extensive violent conflict in 3rd world nations and imprisoning peaceful people. In the market, if an arms company wants to grow it has to do the hard work of persuading people to buy their weapons. But, with the state, they can drum up a reason for it to buy its weapons for national defense, creating tension overseas and increasing risk of attack. Market banks have trouble utilizing fractional reserves, but if they come together and create a state-enforced central bank they can expand the monetary supply without fear of bank runs and with a guaranteed bailout, creating crash-inducing bubbles and increasing prices for everyone else.

The logic and the evidence is against the statists, but their arguments prosper on the basis that the libertarian merely wishes that he be the agent for his own wealth. Why has this become such a controversial notion? When a child refuses to let their friends play with his toys, it may be right to scold him for it, but there would be no justification for the other children to steal them from him. We are not witnessing selflessness when the kid hits him on the arm and wrenches the toy out of his hands. That’s what we are talking about here: aggression. Anybody not realising this has not reached the necessary level of consciousness to participate in a constructive conversation about ‘greed’.