Is greed good?

2 minute read

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

No – greed is not good. Or at least not in the way you might think.

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

This idea—which you have mistaken for ‘greed’—is in fact useful in specific circumstances, given certain pre-conditions. Indeed, it is considered fundamental by most economists to the efficient functioning of the market. Adam Smith would be amongst them. 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.”

 

Simply put, it is in the self interest of producers (such as butchers, brewers, and bakers) to charge as much demand will allow for their offerings. Likewise, it is in the self interest of consumers to pay as little as possible in return. The interplay of these two opposing  forces is believed responsible for any and all of the efficiencies that markets have to offer (at least under 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 various types of self-interested acts. The selfish act is recognized as being in an individual’s own best interests, and theirs alone. A selfless act is that which benefits someone other than yourself, while you do not benefit at all. It may even come at your expense.

Grant also describes a third, perhaps less widely acknowledged action which he refers to as ‘otherish’. This is an act or behavior which benefits not only oneself, but others as well. Kind of an ‘everybody wins’ scenario.

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—the investor—stand to profit. But the (former) employees who lose both their jobs and pensions do not.

A selfless act, by comparison, would be to hatch a scheme 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. It would be especially selfless if, in the process, you chose to violate insider trading laws in order to pull off the deal, all the while knowing this would likely land you in federal prison.

But such an action could be considered ‘otherish’ too.

Say, for instance, the airline were to commit to hiring you once you’re released from jail, insuring that your career would not be sacrificed as a result of your effort. It might even benefit.

Or—stay with me here—what if you had somehow unwittingly contributed to the hostile takeover in the first place? Maybe you were duped into thinking that it was in company’s best interests, not realizing that your evil boss had other, more nefarious plans? If that were the case, going to prison to undo the deal could be considered otherish if it 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 benefit not just you, but others as well.

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

 

 

 


[1]  Or [SPOILER ALERT] perhaps you could hatch a scheme to buy back the company and bankrupt the Wall Street investor who executed the takeover as well. 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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