Can we have an economy without greed and fear?

Posted: June 29, 2009 in Business News

Excerpted from The Dallas Morning News

Financial houses were doing all they could to sell risky mortgages and complex debt swaps so their bottom lines could grow and they could avoid being consumed by a competitor. While hindsight shows us the folly of those decisions, the economy also was growing in part because of these financial transactions.

So, here’s the question put forth to eight panelists:

Is it possible to think of an economy not driven by greed and fear? If so, what would that economy look like?( E.F. Schumacher took a stab at that in “Small Is Beautiful,” where he talked about linking spiritual values and economic progress through Buddhist economics.)


“At their core,” writes Thomas Friedman, “markets are propelled by fear and greed. . . The market is . . . going to do whatever it’s going to do — whichever way greed and fear tug it.”

It strikes me that Friedman’s frank description is entirely accurate. But I worry about how easy it is for us to move from accurate description to inevitability, from “this is how it is” to “this is how it must be.”

Too often, in the name of being realistic, we resist imagining things because they seem impossible and thereby preemptively eliminate any chance that altogether different realities can ever become actualities.

Before anything can really change, we have to be willing to imagine what actually is not. Kierkegaard once wrote that “the one who expects what is possible – the one who hopes – is great. . . . but the one who expects the impossible – the one whose hope takes the form of madness – this one is the greatest of all.”

To imagine one’s progeny will one day number the stars in the heavens when one has no children is madness; to think there could be an economy driven by something other than greed and fear is, arguably, just as mad. But maybe this is a time to be a little mad; to expect the impossible, as people of hope.

We must think of what our global economy would look like if it were grounded, conceptually, in something intelligent and positive besides green and fear.

Instead of operating as though there is a zero-sum quantity of goods we are all working to get and/or to share, we must ask what would happen if we thought. . . . well. . . . altogether differently, imagining outside the boundaries of the realistic. And that’s precisely the territory we must learn to explore if the impossible is ever to become the actuality.


All economic activity is driven by desire for material gains. If everyone shared the motives of Mother Theresa, we would not have housing bubbles and market collapses. But we would not have Colombian coffee, personal computers, or flu vaccine, either. We would probably be living under conditions approximating a medieval monastery.

Gain and greed are not the same. Greed takes over when the desire for gain becomes so strong that we start to believe that housing values only go up, or that risk can be divided so many times that it no longer exists.

Desire for gain is reasonable. It relies on new ideas, hard work, and planning.

Greed believes in magic. Fear believes in magic, too. It thinks that risk can be divided so many times that it no longer exists.

Economic systems can be designed to reward the desire for gain. That is the genius of capitalism, which is sometimes short on compassion and justice, but is pretty good at steady growth in technology and productivity.

Capitalism fails, however, when reasonable people start to believe in magic. As long as the economy is managed by people and for people – and I wouldn’t want to live with any other kind of economy – it will sometimes give way to greed or fear.


Not all that long ago, the U.S. economy did a much better job of taking care. At one time, one could make a case that taxes on the rich and tax-supported programs to help the poor reflected virtues by taking care of “the least among us.” A portion of the taxes of the wealthiest were used to assist the poorest and most Americans were OK with that.

Then two things happened.

Ast administrations began the push for deregulation of just about everything, a trend that the political system has championed ever since.

And “ values” got redefined. Instead of focusing on giving, they became focused on judging.

People who held “good values” were assumed to be against homosexuality, abortion, and immigration – the latter being tied up with the whole idea that being poor somehow meant one was a moral as well as an economic failure, and thus not worthy of help.

Blue collar workers were persuaded to vote against their own economic interests by candidates who promised to keep them safe from things like gay marriage and sex education in the public schools while giving tax “relief” to the wealthiest Americans.

I think the American people are ready to make some changes, from returning to some regulation of Wall Street to re-thinking how we use tax dollars and who should carry the heaviest tax burden. Hint: It shouldn’t be the working class.

It is possible to strike a balance of enough regulation to keep greed under control while allowing the creative entrepreneurial American spirit to flourish. And it’s even possible to help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless while we do it. But first we have to stop allowing our “leaders” to make us afraid of one another.


An economy without fear and greed is certainly possible. There is sufficiency in the world.

Somehow, we’ve forgotten that. Modern western capitalism relies on inherent notions of scarcity and competition, which fuel each other.

The very presumption of scarcity creates fear and leads to forms of systematic hoarding, which unfold in various modes of militarization. For example, look at how we are currently imagining and enacting immigration, which is quite surprising if you consider America as a story of ….immigration.

So a mythic scarcity creates material scarcity, and then we Americans find ourselves surprised that desperate peoples are clamoring at our borders in the waning hope that they might find something to eat. This creates a vicious cycle that then encourages greater hoarding, a greater scarcity, as we think to ourselves, “the world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but I’m gonna get mine.”

Rather than economies of scarcity, we have economies of plentitude, for the very fact that we exist and have our being at all shows we are supplied with abundance. Amidst the world’s broken economies, we have a way that frees us from fear, making it possible for us to genuinely care for the world.

This freedom from fear frees us to enter into the kinds care (for the poor, communal sharing, purposeful vocations, etc) that might actually help alleviate suffering created by mythic scarcity. Our choice is which one of the rival economies do we want to believe in?, One of scarcity and desperation? Or one of abundance and hope?


Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American thinker of the 19th century wrote:

“A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. The dice are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication-table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself.”

This is from his florid essay Compensation in which he discusses the natural balancing of action and reaction in nature and the human world. He makes a comment worth stating, “Every excess causes a defect; every defect and excess.”

The question here is whether we ever consider our choices in the context of a wider net of interdependency? Can we imagine an economy which is based not on winner take all, but on all take winnings?

That economy forces us to fully reflect on the difference between wants and needs, what forces contribute to wealth for some and poverty for others, what the privatization of land does to our society, whether we have abandoned the public square as a value, and how far reaching our goals are in terms of economic gain.

We need to come out of our cocoons of self orientation and judge right livelihood in coalition with a broad and wide ranging set of values. In the end, as Emerson implies, all nature tends toward balance, and greed has its own rewards.


“Economy” is a word derived from the Greek, oikonomios, meaning “law of the house.”

Economics ultimately define how we run our house at every level of our existence. Central to modern economic thought is the principle of scarcity; the assumption that we do not have enough resources to produce all of the goods and services that people want. Scarcity creates fear. Fear leads to greed and hoarding of resources. When scarcity drives economics, fear and greed will prevail.

There is abundance and enough for everyone. This is true in today’s world. People need not starve. Our problem is not supply, it is fear of scarcity which leads to distortions of demand.

To that end, the call is to counter the world’s myth of scarcity. To the degree we can live in abundance, regulating our wants and being generous to meet other’s needs, greed and fear will be mitigated. This begins in our own households and extends to national and global economies.


One fascinating idea for managing at least one aspect of economic life was advanced by Andrew Carnegie in the 1880’s Carnegie argued that some people had the gift for handling large amounts of wealth, that others did not, and that nobody could assume such a gift was passed biologically to one’s children. So Carnegie suggested that the estate tax rate be 100%.

In his view, such an imposition would grant persons with the gift for amassing and managing great wealth an opportunity to do so. Moreover, it would prevent great wealth from falling into the hands of those without such a gift. And it would provide a discipline to persons of great wealth for distributing their assets across the society before they died.

Carnegie did this with his philanthropic efforts toward libraries, universities, and other institutions. More recently, a man named Charles Merrill (son of the founder of Merrill Lynch) has acted similarly to give away the resources that his father accumulated.

So it is possible to think of an economy driven not by greed and fear but one driven by an awareness of human mortality, inherent gifts and legislated motivation toward generosity.


This question pushes the idealist in all of us, as well as asking a question where I do not pretend to have any expertise. With those caveats, here are some thoughts.

The question has an assumption that may be important to note at the start. It assumes that humans can respond out of concern for one another and not out of the selfish interests that often drive us (if we are honest with ourselves about what often drives us to seek more that we really need).

This is one reason why complete deregulation does not work. People need to be accountable and the financial books need to be open.

Such an economy would look for more justice and human care.

It would make choices with regard to lifestyle that would say if I earn a certain amount that is all I need to take out for myself and my family to live (Who needs 15 cars? or four yachts?).

It would mean that giving to worthy causes would exceed 3% a year.

It would underwrite education and service jobs more (making sure teachers and other human resource mentors are appreciated and well paid) and honor giving in humanitarian directions or for education with tax incentives.

It might involve a flat tax to get to fairness.

It might cap salaries or cap CEO to average worker ratios.

It would punish crime at the fraud or swindling levels with the vigor we often go after crimes of violence.

I am not an economist and do not pretend to be with these suggestions. These ideas merely suggest the direction or tone an economy with a moral concern might possess.


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