I have always enjoyed the writings of Walter Williams; but on one topic, he gets it completely wrong.
With some frequency, he writes a column praising greed. His most recent one came with the New Year, entitled “I Love Greed.” Here’s how it starts:
What human motivation gets the most
wonderful things done? It’s really a silly question, because the answer is so
simple. It turns out that it’s human greed that gets the most wonderful things
done. When I say greed, I am not talking about fraud, theft, dishonesty,
lobbying for special privileges from government or other forms of despicable
behavior. I’m talking about people trying to get as much as they can for
He then gives examples of Texas ranchers tending their
cattle and Idaho potato farmers watching after their crops as testimony to the
glories of greed. He cites Adam Smith in support of his argument, who famously
said in his Wealth of Nations: “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.”
Williams admits that he’s been encouraged to use the phrase
“enlightened self-interest,” but tells readers: “That’s OK, but I prefer
greed.” He then defends free market capitalism against the alternatives,
thereby linking a love of greed with free market capitalism. I can’t think of a
worse way to defend the free market.
Here are a few problems with Williams’ argument, off the top
of my head:
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1. Greed is one of the seven
deadly sins, and is not something one should love.
2.The examples that Williams gives
aren’t examples of greed. They’re examples of ranchers and farmers tending to
3. The argument provides the left
with an ideal caricature of free markets and capitalists. It’s bad enough to
have Oliver Stone creating unlovely characters like Gordon Gekko is his Wall Street films, who opined
that “greed is good.” We’re get
ting the same argument from champions of freedom
like Walter Williams.
4. The argument alienates every
religious American who knows that greed is a sin. I speak from direct
experience here. Several years ago, I participated in a conference that brought
together free market champions from various think tanks and universities, with
professors from Christian (mostly evangelical) colleges. Not all of these
professors were sold on the virtues of the free market. Walter Williams gave
the opening talk of the conference. The subject? Greed is good. I tried to get him to nuance his point during the Q and A, but to
no avail. Needless to say, this was the worst possible argument for persuading
the target audience.
5. It misrepresents Adam Smith.
Adam Smith never, ever, praised greed
or said greed was good or lovable. Quite the contrary. In response to an early
form of the “greed is good” argument by Bernard de Mandeville, Smith said that
Mandeville’s “system” was “wholly pernicious.” And even Mandeville never said
he loved greed.
6. Williams’ arguments confuses
self-interest with selfishness and greed. It is part of our created nature to
pursue our self-interest. We do that every time we eat, drink, sleep, and obey
the law. Properly ordered self-interest is normally morally licit if not
obligatory. Greed, on the other hand, is disordered self-interest.
7. Saying “I love greed” muddles
one of Smith important arguments. Concerning the butcher, brewer, and baker,
Smith’s point is, that, in a free market (which requires the rule of law) their
self-interest will lead them to provide something for others that they will
freely buy. In other words, their legitimate self-interest will channel their
activities toward the needs of others, even if they’re just concerned about
paying the rent.
8. It muddles Smith’s point about
greed too. Smith certainly took account of the “rapacity” of merchants and
people in commerce. Still, he never argued that greed was good. Rather, he
argued that a free market will tend to channel
people’s greed into activities that meet the needs of others. Think of it this
way: Even if the butcher, brewer, and
baker are greedy, in a market, they can’t steal from others. If they want to get
ahead, they still have to be “other-regarding” in the sense that they have to
provide something for others that they will freely buy. This, no doubt, is
Williams’ point as well. Saying “I love greed” is not a good way of making the
If Williams’ wants to turn off the very people he needs to
persuade and misrepresent Adam Smith, then he should certainly keep praising
greed. Otherwise, he should be more careful in his arguments.