Thursday, September 21, 2006

On "Greed"

If greed is defined as making money, then any era of prosperity is an era of greed, by definition, and any especially prosperous classes of people are especially greedy. But surely, in the ordinary sense of the word, someone who murders a store owner for the small amount of money in his cash register is greedy--perhaps more greedy than someone who makes millions in legitimate work. The sums of money involved cannot be the touchstone of greed. What is remarkable, however, is how utterly undefined this widely used term remains--and yet how fervently asserted. If the term has any concrete meaning, then there might be some way to test empirically, for example, whether or not the 1980s were indeed a "decade of greed" as so often claimed by the anointed.

Once we abandon the notion that the sums of money earned are a measure of "greed," then perhaps the disposition of that money might offer a clue. The 1980s in fact saw a rise of philanthropy to unprecedented levels, not only absolutely but as a percentage of income. Much of this philanthropy was directed toward academia, one of the severest critics of "greed"--and perhaps a candidate for the title itself, as both tuition and professors' salaries rose faster than the rate of inflation nine years in a row during that decade.

Among the many other questions raised by the nebulous concept of "greed" is why it is a term applied almost exclusively to those who want to earn more money or to keep what they have already earned--never to those wanting to take other people's money in taxes or to those wishing to live on the largess dispensed from such taxation. No amount of taxation is ever described by the anointed as "greed" on the part of the government or the clientele of government.

--from The Vision of the Anointed, by Thomas Sowell, 1995

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