Is greed good?

I’m a very successful Wall Street investor, and I’ve always told my shareholders that ‘Greed is good.’ I think it’s a pretty cool thing to say…but it’s also true, right?  Sincerely, G. Gekko

 

No, Mr. Gekko. Greed is not good. 

Or at least not in the way you seem to think.

What I suspect you’re trying to say is something profound about the concept of self-interest.

That idea—which you are mistaking for ‘greed’—does in fact have its place, particularly as it relates to our understanding of economics and capitalism. Indeed, many consider it to be fundamental to the efficient functioning of any so-called ‘free’ market, including the father of economic theory, Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he writes:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

In other words, it is in the interest of producers (such as butchers, brewers, and bakers) to charge as much as demand will allow for their offerings, just as it is in the interest of consumers to attempt to pay as little as possible in return. It is the interplay of these two opposing ‘self-interested’ forces that is believed responsible for any and all of the efficiencies that markets have to offer (at least under what are referred to as ‘perfectly competitive’ conditions). That much is true.

But not all acts of self-interest are necessarily ‘good’.

In Give and Take (2013), organizational psychologist Adam Grant distinguishes between three types of acts, or behaviors. 

The first is the selfish act. This is behavior that is in an individual’s own best self-interest, and theirs alone. The second, the selfless act, benefits someone other than yourself, but not you personally. It may even come at your expense.

But Grant also describes a third type of action which does not seem to be as widely recognized, or acknowledged. These are behaviors which benefit not only yourself, but others too. Kind of an ‘everybody wins’ scenario. Grant refers to them as ‘otherish’.

For example, acquiring, and then breaking up a successful airline after deceiving its union in order to raid its pension fund is by almost any measure an act of pure selfishness. Obviously, you (and your investors) stand to profit, but the workers who lose both their jobs and retirement savings do not.

A selfless act, by comparison, would be to re-purchase the airline from the soulless corporate raider who initiated the takeover, then re-hire those same workers and make the company whole again – especially if the effort were undertaken without any expectation of later financial reward. It would be particularly selfless if, in order to do so, you were willing to violate insider trading laws to execute your plan – and therefore risk going to jail.

But such an act could be considered otherish too – especially if the airline were to commit to hiring you once you’re released from jail. It might also be otherish if doing so simply allowed you to sleep better at night.[1]

Anyway, I trust you see what I’m getting at.

Self-interest—aka, ‘greed’—is not always good. Some acts of self-interest are ‘otherish’ – that is, they benefit not just you, but those around you as well.

Others are just plain selfish, and to no one’s advantage but your own.

 

 


[1]  Or [SPOILER ALERT] you could hatch a scheme to buy back the company and bankrupt the Wall Street investor who executed the takeover. Then, maybe later, you could secretly wear a wire so that when he berates you in Central Park for screwing up his illegal scheme, the feds could use this as evidence to put him in prison too, and offer you a lighter sentence in return. Or something like that.

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