This is a post originally written for the Prometheus blog, but it no longer appears there so I thought I’d repost it.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” — C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock
At the gym the other day I overheard two older women talking as they ran on treadmills. They were talking (quite loudly – I wasn’t straining to eavesdrop) about the current situation with banks and home mortgages. They both agreed that many people with adjustable-rate mortgages were going to be struggling to make payments if rates continued to rise. The culprit, they said, was greed. The banks were greedy for giving adjustable rate loans to people who may have a high risk of default.
I tried to tune them out and focus on pumping up my already massive 157 body to no avail (both the tuning out and the pumping). Their conversation moved on to last night’s TV viewing. “I was watching that Deal or no Deal show, and I couldn’t believe it!” She went on to share her absolute amazement and disgust with various contestants for choosing to pass up tens of thousands of dollars in order to try for more. Both of the treading ladies agreed that this was “A shame”, and that it boiled down to “Greed. Just pure greed.”
As I strained to lift the smallest denomination of barbells in the gym I thought about these nice old ladies, seemingly concerned with the welfare of all mankind. What was so greedy? Banks chose to loan money to people, which always bears a risk of default. These women felt the default risk was too great and the loan shouldn’t have been made; the banks, apparently, did not. Game show contestants were faced with a choice to take a sum of money and walk, or to risk walking with nothing for the chance of a larger sum. The joggers thought they should take the money, they thought the risk of trying for more was too great; the contestants did not.
Both of these were instances where the risk preferences of the ladies differed from those whom they were criticizing as greedy. Whose risk preference should be enforced? If these ladies had their way, there might be laws and regulations imposing their risk preferences on everyone else. Would we really be better off if the opinions of these women dictated who got a loan, rather the calculations of those who own the resources? Would we be better off if game show contestants had to call the treadmill duo and ask permission to hit the big red ‘No deal’ button?
There are two problems with anti-greed sentiment that seeks government intervention.
1. One man’s greed is another man’s self-interest
Greed is an internal condition where a person wants more than is good for them or others. Like lust, envy, or self-deception, it cannot be identified or defined from the outside. Only the greedy person is really able to know whether or not they are greedy. How is an outside observer to judge whether or not it is greedy for you to seek a pay raise, or try to find a cheaper car, or buy another song on iTunes? They can’t.
2. There are some things the law just can’t do
Even if we were able to find some objective, identifiable, universal definition of greed, how could it be enforced? If the point is to make people less greedy when assessing risk and making decisions, how can any external punishment make them a better judge? To add the additional risk of fine or imprisonment to behaviors deemed greedy (presumably because they bear more risk than the result warrants) the greedy person can still be perfectly greedy in choosing to abstain from the activity. It is the self-interested or “greedy” desire to stay out of prison that motivates to obey the law. Law cannot change the heart.
Both the bankers and the game show contestants were merely assessing risk, and choosing to do what they believed would give them the best result. Isn’t that what we all do with every decision we make?
As one of the ladies stepped off the treadmill and into the tanning booth I wondered to myself if she felt greedy for doing so. Her skin was tan enough already. Artificial sunlight increases the risk of cancer. She chose to engage in the risky behavior of tanning anyway, just to have more bronze.
Greed. Just pure greed.