What You Should Think About Greed

“Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”

–Erich Fromm

Roaming the blogosphere provides observers with no shortage of comedic sights. People just making their first efforts at articulating political thought may give off that adorable vibe one senses in little children trying to get their hands around an adult tool. Then again, if the message is sufficiently hateful, they may instead give off that disturbing vibe one senses in little children trying to get their hands around a loaded firearm.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the vast array of instances in which the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” speech is cited as a compelling defense of cutthroat capitalism. Anyone of sound mind who actually watched Oliver Stone’s Wall Street couldn’t come away seeing Gecko as a hero. No doubt he was a complex and charismatic character. Also, in the context of the dramatic moment, his speech was an appeal to idealize cutthroat capitalism. Yet in the broader context of the film, the character was clearly a villain willing to inflict enormous pain and suffering on others simply to add even more money to his own uselessly vast personal fortune.

As a character, Gordon Gecko was an exceptional man. For example, he referenced Sun Tzu in a business context without completely mangling the application of that ancient wisdom. Ordinarily, when an executive or manager invokes that sagacious general, it is just before pulling a monumentally stupid move. The Art of War has much to teach about abstract strategy. Yet it also has much to teach about overseeing armies of slave-conscripts in the midst of deadly struggle. Since that text became fashionable with the MBA crowd, it has done far more to promote the view that free workers engaged in constructive endeavors should be treated like slave-conscripts than it has done to refine the abstract strategic thinking of business leaders.

Likewise, if his words are to be believed, Gordon Gecko was right to call for sweeping reform of management at Teldar Paper. When a private enterprise is taking huge losses while continuing to pay out large salaries to an unproductive legion of executives, change is warranted. Yet his actions represent the exception that proves the rule — not the rule in action. In reality there are plenty of bloated Teldar-style corporate bureaucracies and very little pressure to link pay with performance. Insofar as reality’s Wall Street drives business trends, it promotes the search for cheap labor abroad rather than real restraint in the realm of executive compensation packages.

If popular beliefs about the benefits of cutthroat capitalism were remotely true, then bloated executive payrolls at unprofitable companies would be rare and short-lived. Instead of the tight correlation between productivity and executive compensation that capitalism is thought to promote, year after year in the U.S., executive pay raises consistently outpace overall economic growth, sometimes by a substantial multiple!

Architects of modern capitalism often spoke of “enlightened self-interest.” In a world where capital market activity involves long-term investors taking an active interest in the management practices of companies they partially own, there is at least the theoretical possibility that greed will tend to promote good business practices. We do not live in such a world.

Much of the activity in capital markets today is short term speculation. Investors seek to cash in on growing trends or public reaction to world events rather than build wealth by supporting wise executive stewardship. Even institutional investors, like mutual fund managers, are no longer likely to hold long term positions of any consequence. Though he is held in much esteem amongst financiers and tycoons, virtually no one today emulates Warren Buffet’s practice of actively monitoring the management practices of companies supported by his investments. He has become a living relic of a bygone era.

The end result is an economic dystopia alluded to in Oliver Stone’s film. Corporate raiders gain control of a business, loot it for saleable assets, trim workforces, further cut payrolls by replacing experience and skill with untrained novices, declare an impressive short term profit, then laugh all the way to the bank. It is a strong driving force in the “race to the bottom” — a steady decline in the quality of goods and services. While financial insiders get new piles of money to place alongside the piles of money they already possessed, thriving businesses are gutted and abandoned.

Depending upon economic elites to be consistently enlightened in their pursuit of self-interest makes no more sense than depending upon hereditary aristocrats to be consistently enlightened in the exercise of despotic power. The core idea behind the establishment of the United States was that exploitation of the many by the few could be disrupted through periodic redistribution of power according to the results of a nationwide public process. While this approach to political power is widely embraced, it is hard to imagine many Americans endorsing a similar approach in which wealth would be periodically redistributed.

In fairness, there are some good consequences to economic inequality. Then again, there is a vast range of possibilities between absolute economic equality and cutthroat capitalism. Right now, only the empty promises of trickle down economics answer any demand for social justice. Just imagine the outrage if a group of hereditary political aristocrats answered calls for democratization with flimflam about how their immense personal privilege will eventually spill over to empower ordinary citizens.

Wealth and power are not the same things, but no society that has accommodated extreme concentrations of wealth has found ways to prevent them from also serving as extreme concentrations of power. Some would defend a greed-based competitive paradigm with assertions about human nature. “Communism didn’t work because people are too greedy” goes the propaganda point woven deeply into the fabric of American culture.

If we actually governed ourselves with total deference to human nature, then we might also argue that medicine doesn’t work because people are too vulnerable to sickness or police do not work because people do not possess a natural tendency to comply with statutes. Government is not about shrugging and letting the worst of human nature determine the course of human events. Government is about taking collective action to restrain the worst of human nature and promote the advance of civilization. In short, it is a means to transcend “the law of the jungle.”

Because of the strong connection between wealth and power, a system that is dedicated to rewarding the effective actualization of personal greed is a system that empowers the selfish, the dishonest, the shortsighted, and even the larcenous among us. It should come as no surprise that the end result is a tendency for public officials to wallow in the spoils of legalized bribery while looting the public treasury to subsidize their coconspirators in the military-industrial complex.

I do not contend that an absolute equality of wealth is either attainable or desirable as a matter of public policy. Yet I do contend wholeheartedly that anarcho-capitalist ideology is an immensely harmful set of ideas rooted in falsehoods. These falsehoods are sustained by popular personalities who manage to combine shoddy analytical skills with an excellent ability to manipulate the emotions of their gullible admirers. Even as American civil rights, environmental conditions, economic vitality, public morale, and global prestige are being devoured by the politics of selfishness, millions of voting citizens will perpetuate their habit of endorsing a candidate based chiefly on false promises of fiscal restraint.

I have no trouble agreeing with the consensus of religious teachings that greed, far from being good, should be regarded as an anathema. Yet I also acknowledge that, in specific contexts, subject to reasonable restraints, greed can be useful. We do not need to take “self-interest” entirely out of the American way of life, but it is long past time to restore “enlightened” so as to strike a optimal balance. This balance permits collective action to solve real problems facing real people in our own times while also permitting individual action to produce individual rewards. Decades of policy from dozens of prosperous nations prove that this balance can be achieved. All we need in our own society is the will to make it happen.

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13 Responses to What You Should Think About Greed

  1. Brad says:

    Nice post. I tried to make a similar point myself with my amateur articulations! Greed definitely needs to jump into the backseat. I don’t see why we can’t have it all in these modern times.

  2. Stephan says:

    Hi, I have a few points to make in response:

    – Stock speculation does have a valid economic purpose – that purpose is to share distributed information, giving it up to the market place, which in turn allows for rational economic calculation.

    – The USA as it is now, is NOT a free market, so I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of free markets to just say stuff like: “Much of the activity in capital markets today is short term speculation.” Part of the reason the markets today aren’t like truly free ones, is because of government regulation. Take for example govt 401k plans which put more money into the market than people really wanted to put there in the first place.

    – The reason the government is immoral and should not exist, is because it takes away the self-ownership rights of the individual, which are of utmost importance. Without self-ownership, we are nothing but slaves. The right of self-ownership necessarily permits a right to private property, and freedom of association, which the government does not respect. If such rights really were upheld (as in, the right to individual secession), there would be no problem.

    I am an anarcho-capitalist, and it’s because fundamentally for people to impose government solutions is to propose violent solutions (don’t believe me? try not paying your taxes) where non-violent solutions can be found. To propose government solutions is to assert that you own other human beings, and quite frankly, you do not own other human beings.

  3. Demonweed says:

    I appreciate that your feedback is well-intended and civil. Hopefully I can strike the same tone, as I do seek challenges from different perspectives that are articulated without the mindless venom I’ve become accustomed to seeing from would-be critics of liberal political ideas. I do have some sympathy — in my undergraduate years I was active with the Libertarian party and convinced that people could solve their own problems if only government would get out of the way. Of course, I was woefully wrong then, but not mean-spirited or ignorant in the manner of today’s bizarre pro-war yet anti-government advocates. I hope in you I’ve found a kindred spirit to my well-meaning younger self.

    It is true that capital markets, in the ideal, rely on distributed information to promote growth among productive corporations and discourage it among dysfunctional corporations. However, it is not government regulation that drives us so far away from that ideal. It is the inability of regulation to encourage investment and discourage speculation. Day traders are not accomplishing the valid purpose of rewarding good management and limiting the influence of bad management. Instead they ride media trends and exploit quirks of public perception in order to profiteer from the distortions of information.

    Now that even mutual funds — once the epitome of responsible agents wielding influence in capital markets — have ceased sustaining stable positions over substantial spans of time, this feedback mechanism does not reward business growth. Instead it rewards business cannibalism. There is a time and a place for scavengers to pick apart working corporations, but that time and place should not be “everywhere, all the time.” Business practices, not government action, account for this phenomenon. If anything an end to a “foxes guarding the henhouse” attitude at the SEC could bring about sound regulation that would restore the legitimate function of American capital markets.

    I hear what you’re saying when it comes to forces like 401k plans driving individuals to become more invested in stocks or stock-related financial instruments than they would choose to acting independently. However, it may be worth pointing out that people genuinely interested in (not to mention capable of) actively overseeing their investments are a small subset of people in need of retirement security.

    Sometimes, educated thoughtful people develop an inclination impose a perception educated thoughtfulness on the entire world. In reality there is more interest in who won the last season of Survivor or which NFL teams will make it to the playoffs than in the future of oil prices or rising trends in business management. Applying enlightened self-interest on a grass roots level sounds nice in theory, but in practice it becomes problematic as relevant enlightenment (a.k.a. expertise) is not at all evenly distributed throughout the whole of a citizenry. The idea that everyone would produce better results when left to their own devices flies in the face of the fact that a majority are not really interested in being left to their own devices, and perhaps a majority also measure up poorly in areas like political savvy or financial awareness when compared with experts in those fields.

    I must abscond momentarily here, but I believe my broader point is that personal liberty is much more vulnerable to political threats than economic threats. Even in places like Holland or Sweden, where taxation is fairly high and there may be upper limits on just how much personal income an individual can collect in a given year, slavery is not at all an accurate assessment of living conditions. People are free to think, associate, travel, express themselves, etc. as they like. Outside of rare Bill Gates-esque anomalies, people are also generally able to control their economic destinies.

    Perhaps people who crave anarchy are deprived of their heartfelt desires, but in a real anarchy people who crave civilization are invariably deprived of their heartfelt desires. History leaves little room to doubt that the absence of government does not pave the way for noble capitalists to enrich a better tomorrow — it paves the way for gangsters and warlords to make a much more horrible today. “People are too greedy for communism to work,” usually rests on a misinterpretation of communism as something necessarily devoid of political liberties. However, “people are too greedy for anarchy to work,” rests soundly on the reality that wherever anarchy emerges (post-invasion Iraq, post-Katrina New Orleans, etc.) the lack of law and order leaves people worse off than they were under its previously imperfect imposition.

  4. Stephan says:

    Well I think you’ll find that I am both anti-war and anti-government. As for the capital markets not being truly free markets, here is another possible explanation: Government control of currency, which is permitted to continually increase/inflate (decreasing our purchasing power) creates malinvestment. How? By artificially pumping more currency into the system, and maintaining monopoly currency, the government keeps interests rates lower than ‘what they should be’, which causes people to invest in unprofitable ventures with money they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

    The only way to prevent this is to move towards sound money, which could easily be done with free market determination of currency. But that won’t happen, because the government is all about taking power and taking control over things, not releasing control.

    As for your point about people only caring about NFL/Survivor etc. I don’t feel this is an argument for government, because fundamentally these people are supposed to be able to vote in leaders who will “create good regulation”. Thats like saying I can’t trust myself to voluntarily go to the dentist, but I can trust myself to voluntarily hire someone to force me to go to the dentist – pure madness. This is the paradox of democracy, and its one of the many reasons why I believe that it is horribly flawed.

    As for Nordic nanny states like Holland/Sweden, sure there is SOME freedom allowed, but obviously they’re still not able to decide where all their own money goes right? So obviously, their money is being taken away from them, and their right to private property and self-ownership is being impinged on by the government.

    As for post-invasion Iraq, New Orleans etc, these are examples of where government interference made a situation worse. You even wrote “post-invasion”! Iraq is a troubled state mainly because those factions are warring: and over what? Control of the government. Iraq would be much better off without US presence, or any government presence.

    With New Orleans, the government did not do nearly as much as it could have to help people. I heard stories about people who wanted to go and help out, but the military stopped them at the border, saying something like “its too dangerous”. What kind of government does this? Where people are willing to go and risk their lives to help their fellow man, but the government stops them? No, I think if people are unable to be civil in times of emergencies, then lets not pretend that the government is able to be non-violent. I think we’re really just sugarcoating it up, in thinking that government is all “nice” and people are all “bad”.

    In the end, none of the above really matters as much as this: Would you still support shooting me for not paying my taxes? Would you still support locking people because they disagree? I think people go too easy on the government, not realising that it is an institution of violent coercion. Seriously, people don’t even have the right to disagree, whether they like it or not, their taxes go towards causes they may even consider immoral.

    I make not only a practical case for anarcho-capitalism, but a principled one. It is wrong for one person to impose their views on another, because this is presupposing that a person may own another human being. Nobody says “Let’s not free the slaves because what if they can’t find jobs when they’re free?”, it still makes sense to free the slaves right? So it still makes sense to not have violent coercion (govt) in our lives.

  5. Demonweed says:

    First off, I apologize for the long delay in responding to these arguments. Christmas was an uncommonly busy time for me, and presently I am travelling. However, while I have some spare moments this afternoon I’ll try to articulate my views on these subjects.

    To begin with, I believe it is a serious folly to make the assumption that a person driving along roads, employing publicly educated workers, purchasing materials in regulated markets, etc. is simply spinning money out of personal force of will. I believe the results of anarcho-capitalism in practice are consistently abominable on any large scale, but I also believe that the theory also fails to recognize that starting economic conditions are far from perfect.

    For example, there are good arguments on both sides of affirmative action debates today. I get that may be troubling to hear when considered from a governmental perspective, but keep in mind that many private organizations also consider or even implement affirmative action policies. More to the point though, six generations ago conditions existed where many Americans were desperately poor, having only just been liberated from actual bondage, and a few Americans were tremendously wealthy because they built fortunes from exploiting slave labor. Was there never any reason to make adjustments to that situation? In such a context, is it really sensible to rely on market forces alone to see plantation owners’ wealth/power reduced? Is there no benefit to be gained by interventions that give penniless overworked formers slaves some sort of economic foothold to improve their ability to achieve a basic standard of living and accomplish productive goals?

    The fear that someone may be shot for not paying taxes does not reflect a reality in which people are shot for not paying taxes. Once upon a time, one shooting incident occurred after tax law defiance gave way to a broader investigation and a survivalist decided to resist a siege laid on his family compound. In reality, that sort of lawbreaking is not resolved with any more force than other white collar crimes. On the other hand, stray bullets from vigilantes operating in a lawless environment would certainly be much more common than Ruby Ridge-style events. I believe any reasonable perspective recognizes that the absence of government is a greater danger than the presence of an average modern government, never mind one that is responsive to public pressure, predicated on noble principles, and restricted by constitutional civil liberties.

    Now, if someone wants to run off in the woods and do his or her own thing without actually participating in consensus civilization, so be it. I agree that if a person can actually produce real wealth without relying on government currency (which is hardly as imperfect as trusting private operators to avoid exploiting control over media of exchange for personal benefit) or infrastructure or social services, etc. then so be it. However, the idea that taxation is innately injust rests on the bogus notion that productivity is innately individual. Collective economic action has long been crucial to the achievements of any significantly wealthy persons or corporations. If one is not blind to that reality, then it becomes much easier to see that it is entirely just to link participation in the society that facilitates building wealth with support for the maintenance of that society.

    My time is short, but hopefully those broad strokes address the underlying philosophical disagreement here. Anarcho-capitalism is not necessarily a malicious form of idealism, but I believe acting on it will tend to produce great pain and suffering without providing any greater benefit than psychological satisfaction to the very small number of people who are absolutely certain it is the only way to go. I support the idea of letting people drop off the grid to indulge in social experiments of this type, but I certainly do not support annihilating countless useful civic and economic institutions merely to accomodate that desire, which I believe I am not alone in regarding as of dubious value.

  6. Demonweed says:

    Since it is relevant, I also thought I might as well link to a sprawling contribution I just made to someone else’s anarcho-capitalist (or at least Randian Objectivist) blog. It may inject a little further clarity into my thoughts vis-a-vis the arguments against a role for the state in economic activities.

  7. Stephan says:

    Hi again Demonweed I didn’t actually realise you had responded, but anyway, here’s my answer:

    I don’t really understand what you’re saying in the first paragraph, what do you mean by “spinning money out of personal force of will”?

    As for “is it sensible to rely on market forces to see plantation owners wealth/power reduced” – Yes, because it is the only moral way to do it. You don’t beat evil people who use force by just imposing force on your own people. Government itself is force, if I said to you “murder is bad, so in order to stop it, I’m going to go out and do 100 murders” you’d call me a madman.

    With tax evasion, it really does not matter at all that people don’t violently resist, the fact is, they know that if they dont pay their taxes, they will be locked up. This is an immoral use of force where the person has not consented to it beforehand.

    With “running off into the woods” – if you are referring to the right of individual secession, this is really all I want basically. I want everybody, everywhere to have the right to opt out of ALL government taxes+regulations, while remaining on their own land. Once enough people have seen how the voluntary society works, I doubt people would willingly choose violent governance over peaceful anarcho-capitalism.

    So while you may frame it as “annihilating useful civic economic institutions”, my point is that they are funded via violent coercion, which is wrong. So they are not useful institutions since they are immoral anyway.

    One important question for you: Why do you allow the government to do more things than what an individual can do? If taxation were moral, everyone would be able to go and just “tax” other people and claim that it was “for the public good”. The government is only made up of individuals, and so it must also be bound by the same rules as all individuals. Which means if you want somebody to follow your rules or give you their money, you need their consent first.

    Stephan

  8. Demonweed says:

    I do support the idea that people ought to be able to drop out and do their own thing, but not because I believe more than a fringe would. To me it simply seems like the path of least resistance because containing the outrage of people who actually hold beliefs such as you advocate is a greater loss than forfeiting the economic contributions those few would make. Perhaps I am wrong, but the upside of this position is that if I am mistaken in general, evidence would emerge that would better inform my views.

    As things stand, the overwhelming predominance of evidence suggests that market forces are a worse paradigm for government than anything short of deliberate fascism in the modern world. I mentioned Katrina and Iraq in my original response not because of the harm done by government action, but because this stunningly awful chapter in the history of American government created a couple of instances where people had to get by without any effective government at all.

    In neither case did anarchy give rise to useful vigilance committees, volunteer emergency services, optimization of economic activity, etc. Absent any governing authority at all, children ceased to be educated, useful institutions were looted of working capital, opportunists price gouged desperately needy families, etc. It is a fair point that all this happened in the context of a disaster’s aftermath. Yet I do not see anyone proposing a plan that would shelter a society from all possible future disasters. As such, the way anarchy actually performs in such a context cannot be dismissed.

    I believe the only reason it seems that government action tends to be more harmful than private action is that the power of private actors is limited. Governments can be corrupt, but corporations rarely overlook an opportunity to maximize corruption. Decades of nonsensical propaganda about the intrinsic efficiency and innovativeness of the private sector vs. the intrinsic waste and sloth of the public sector has driven a push to privatize many legitimate functions of government. What is the result? Instead of driving down prices and improving service, corporate food service to the Army results in $20/plate meals and bloated supply lines that must be protected by a force already too small to fill the void created by Iraq’s dismantled security apparatus.

    Okay, so judging private economic actors by the conduct of Haliburton is as unfair as judging governments by the conduct of North Korea. Yet the success stories of privatization initiatives are a puddle compared to the ocean of promises (or the torrents of damage) produced by private operators given control of activities traditionally performed by governments. For profit high schools offer hope for improving a messy situation, but typically deliver no music, no art, no vocational training, and slightly inferior variations on core subjects. Private utilities promise better service at lower prices, yet they neglect infrastructure while manipulating markets to raise prices . . . and their record on service is mixed at best.

    It seems to me that hostility toward government is driven chiefly by the enormous effort made to mislead people into mythological adoration of capitalism. Sure, if in fact the profit motive made people honorable and masterful in the pursuit of productivity then it would be worthy of consideration as the fundamental driving force around which society would be structured. Alas, the link that binds mastery and honor to profit-oriented thinking only becomes more than coincidental when one becomes lost in the pages of an Ayn Rand novel.

    Still, I’m all for social experimentation. If only there were frontiers beyond which it might be done. Hopefully you would at least agree that giving people input in a process that results in public policy based on popular compromises is an improvement on rule by fiat of a hereditary despot. Quirks of colonial history were a catalyst in the move from autocracy to the existing forms of self-government. If a society of fully autonomous individuals is not a recipe for gangsters and warlords to seize the day, then new land would be the place to try it. I suppose that’s just one more reason to support making space exploration a non-trivial component of human endeavor.

  9. evanescent says:

    Stephan said:

    One important question for you: Why do you allow the government to do more things than what an individual can do? If taxation were moral, everyone would be able to go and just “tax” other people and claim that it was “for the public good”. The government is only made up of individuals, and so it must also be bound by the same rules as all individuals. Which means if you want somebody to follow your rules or give you their money, you need their consent first.

    This is not true for all proper roles of government. Taking property without someone’s consent is wrong no matter who does it, but that does not mean we don’t need government for some tasks. In a free society, individuals delegate the use of force to a government, so that it can meet out justice and protect citizens objectively and fairly.

    The idea that we should reject government altogether is naive and foolish. Government has its roles, but taxation and redistribution of wealth are not amongst them.

  10. Demonweed says:

    I’d like to briefly revisit another area of clash here. To me it seems profoundly wrong to regard personal income or corporate profits as innately and wholly the property of initial recipients. There is no excuse for the oversimplification that eliminates the many crucial roles a well-governed society plays in making commerce thrive. The reason lumberjacks can be paid today is that forests were not completely clearcut in the past. That happened not because of altruistic stewardship provided by an long term thinkers in the timber industry, but because government wisely stepped in to enforce forestry policy that preserved forest ecologies (which some might say even have benefits beyond providing wood and pulp to productive mills.)

    Yet compulsory conservation is just one of the ways capitalists may be saved from themselves. Public education, public infrastructure, and even public health care create a better quality of life even for indirect recipients. If there were such a person as to travel chiefly by private helicopter from cradle to grave, receive only privately-funded health care, and partake exclusively of private educational opportunities; that individual would still be much better off surrounded by free-traveling, freely educated, generally healthy people than living among and doing business with travel-averse, uneducated, and generally sickly people.

    A rising tide lifts all ships. This realization explains why many people who do pay taxes in the upper percentiles are not as disgruntled as those who practice ideologies at the far extremes of economic individualism. Rather than fret over whether or not each and every penny of tax flows through to some sort of direct benefit to the payee, collective action is broadly supported in instances where the benefits are also collective. By definition, capitalism provides those who are already wealthy (i.e. able to put financial capital to work) much more opportunity to generate income than those who are not wealthy. Good roads, safe ports, minimally toxic urban air, optimally thriving rural ecologies — so many things (including an educated and healthy workforce) contribute substantially to the quality of the investment environment. This is an indirect, but very real, benefit concentrated dramatically on those who have the means to make large investments in new or growing enterprises.

  11. evanescent says:

    “Public education, public infrastructure, and even public health care create a better quality of life even for indirect recipients.”

    This may or may not be true Demonwood – but then it should e open to an individual’s choice to contribute to these things. The problem with this attitude is that it overlooks the source of all these endeavours: production, and this is accomplished through private business and capitalism. So, “public” enterprises are just another way of saying that the private effort of people is to be harvested to support people who are too lazy or unfortunate to sustain themselves. Remember the government is the only party with the power to wield a gun – as such it’s authority must be severely limited to only those roles that are necessary. The government is not there to enforce morality, or anyone’s personal politic opinion. If you think tax would help the poor, that’s your opinion, but you have no right to make a demand at the point of a gun.

    In fact, it is government interference with economics that produces deleterious effects.

    Remember that government has no right to dictate to any private business how they may run their affairs. If they are wise they reap the benefits, if they aren’t, they go bankrupt. Capitalism and collectivism are incompatible – I think you have failed to grasp this point. This is clear from your remarks like “free travel” “free education” “free healthcare” etc – there is no such thing! Who will provide these things? And if they are free for some, they will cost more for others – money does not grow on trees. But what right do you have to turn the producer and say “you must produce and give away free of charge”, simply because other people don’t have? Actually, it is capitalism that is best suited for increasing wealth and the standard of living for all, but it does so as a pleasant side-effect, without private companies forced to provide for other people who have no rightful claim on their property, and without turning other citizens into parasites on the labour of others.

  12. Stephan says:

    Demonweed, I think you’ve got it wrong about conservation of natural resources. The market actually puts it more in people’s desire to conserve resources that are valued by other people, via its price mechanism. Obviously there must be some kind of ‘balance’ found between new technology/conserving old nature that ppl like to see. But capitalism is the best way to find this balance, while at the same time not violating moral principles like “don’t steal”.

    Why is this? because when you own something, you take more care of it, you’re more inclined to look after it in the long run. On the other hand, when government owns something, it doesn’t really have to care, because politicians are only in for a given amount of years. So often you’ll find companies just buying logging rights from the govt via bribery, political campaigning etc.. then they’ll just pull a fly by night operation, cut the trees down and be gone the next day. On the flip side of the coin, if you actually owned the forest, you would need to regrow trees and cut them at a sustainable pace to conserve the value of your land.

    Also, the fact that infrastructure is publicly provided now (via theft I’ll add), does not mean that it could not have happened privately. Roads and other infrastructure can be done via voluntary means, so its not really much use appealing to these things to justify government violence.

  13. Demonweed says:

    It would be wonderful if that were at all a reflection of reality. Why should a power plant pay more for lower emissions when it gets all of the savings of dirty air, but incurs only a small portion of the damages? The same is true for pretty much all forms of pollution. Now, if there were some mechanism by which ownership of entities traditionally in the public commons (wilderness, oceans, the atmosphere) could be meaningful, the ideals you espouse might have bearing here. As it is, we just have this “wouldn’t it be nice if timber tycoons ‘owned the forest'” with total obliviousness for the extremes of violence conflict over ownership of any source of natural wealth would generate in the absence of government-imposed law and order.

    Not only is the real world vastly different, but no remotely plausible scheme has ever been proposed for handling this without some sort of enforcement-capable collective entity (i.e. a government.) Your thinking seems to assume that people in business are saintly paragons of long term thinking. It is hard to imagine anyone in our times is not already keenly aware that very nearly the reverse is true. Time after time after time, corporations are quick to grab at minor gains in their own bottom line at the expense of major losses for humanity as a whole. I recommend reading up on the history of the Superfund or becoming acquainted with the conduct of private entities involved in mining or oil extraction in order to understand how incredibly harmful greed can be — and this is in a context where at least some government exists to restrain the extent of that harmfulness.

    . . . and again with the “taxation is theft” stuff. That someone should be fooled into embracing that bogus language is understandable. That someone should stick with it after being confronted with substantial critique is a little more puzzling. One could just as well make the argument that property is theft. Public interests are no more imaginary or illegitimate than private interests. Not only is it absurd to equate something as petty as material wealth with something as noble as free speech, but modern accumulations of wealth are only possible in the context of stability and security provided by public sector endeavors. Again, I am supportive of those who would cut themselves off from consensus society in order to do their own thing. However, it is problematic when recipients of enormous direct and indirect benefits of government action carry on with this insistence that those benefits merit zero acknowledgement when it comes to the distribution of wealth clearly and significantly facilitated by the context civilization provides.

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