We all know what it is. We all consider it bad. Religions condemn it, while fostering it, and corporations have just stopped concerning themselves with it. Greed they say, is merely competition at work. But what effect does it really have within our societies? Is it not the one thing we all suffer from, yet least recognize in ourselves while abhorring it in others?
When the founders of America drew up their Constitution, they were concerned that by giving every (white) man the vote, the great unwashed and illiterate among them would vote for one of their own kind as President, which would never do…
…America had to be governed by gentlemen of breeding and good intellect. After all, most of them were originally English, and the English never let any riffraff near their Parliament.
It was decided they would allow a democratic system of one man one vote, but there would be an ‘Electoral College’ where each State in the Union would have a certain number of votes, depending on their representation in the Congress.
The last thing the founders wanted was the great unwashed and illiterate to allow one of theirs to slip through the system and become leader of the free world.
Mostly it worked well, but as always greed began to manifest itself over time. The great unwashed and illiterate became more and more disillusioned with the gentlemen of breeding and intellect living it up in big mansions with horses and carriages to ride around in, while the peasants lived in poverty.
Things managed to teeter along okay for a while. The taxation system meant each paid according to his share (though the wealthy made the rules and found plenty of ways to bend them to suit themselves). Then came the great depression of the 1930’s when everyone suffered, though the tales of wealthy businessmen leaping from tall buildings rather than face the future as one of the great unwashed and illiterate, are totally untrue and mere myths of the time.
In 1930, along came John Maynard Keynes with his first, and probably most noticeable book, “A Treatise on Money”. He was quite a good economist and his ideas quickly caught on. Nations almost everywhere moved over to Keynesian economics and economies were generally quite well balanced for the next fifty years. Taxes remained fair, with very high earners, like some pop bands, paying 95% of their earnings to their government, with some of that money being paid back to those out of work, or sick.
Of course, greed kept desperately trying to invade the system. There was a constant tax war between nations as high earners moved to countries with lower tax rates. It wasn’t just the pop bands, big companies would often be invited to move their production out of one nation and into another, with the enticement of paying substantially less tax.
Greed wasn’t just the province of the wealthy. The working man wanted his share, too, and unions grew ever more powerful, making demands for huge pay increases for their workers. Some union bosses also managed to make a very good living in the process.
Before long it became a free for all between company bosses and the unions, with pay demands getting out of hand to the point of toppling governments.
Greed is a basic component of life itself, perhaps better understood as the ‘survival instinct’. When it intrudes into economic matters, it produces an imbalance that runs amok and creates distortions the system cannot control.
In the UK of the 1970’s union greed forced a showdown between the unions and the government of the day, which resulted in what became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Keynesian economics stalled due to this injection of greed into the system. It forced the British Labour government of James Callaghan to collapse, giving the right-wing Tory party control of the government, and allowing Margaret Thatcher to become Prime Minister.
It was about this time that a relatively new name caught the economic limelight. Milton Friedman was already known among his peers, and his ideas were widely debated among economic scholars. It became something of a Keynes v. Friedman battle, but Friedman had accrued some powerful devotee’s in the form of the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and his very good friend, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher.
Friedman’s idea was that most government interventions in the economics of a country were wrong. Politicians weren’t versed in the vagaries of the marketplace, which should be self-governing by its very nature. Freeing the marketplace to find its own balance in society would be beneficial to the nation, and hopefully in time, the world.
By allowing companies to have free rein over their businesses and severely reducing their tax burdens, profits would soar and the benefits would trickle down to the ordinary people in the form of more employment, better working and living conditions, and increased salaries. In short, we’d all be better off.
Reagan and Thatcher were totally enamoured of the idea and set about putting it into practice. They realised it was not something union leaders would be ecstatic about, so first they had to bust the unions. That took a while and caused much upset and hardship in both America and the UK, but eventually both succeeded and Friedman’s economics could prevail.
It’s a charming idea, almost reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The market would make money for private enterprise, and the beneficent private companies would use their surplus cash for the benefit of all. Sadly, the charming idea was about as practical as the vanishing Cheshire cat from ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
Why then did Friedman’s economic plan fail miserably, and is still failing to this day? Once again we return to the vexed question of “greed”. The human race loves the idea of sharing out wealth, but only if it’s not our wealth that’s being shared. The same is true of companies. If Microsoft is to stay ahead of a competitor like Google, then it has to invest money in itself to do so. If Google wants to shoulder out Apple, it must do likewise. There’s not a lot left to ‘trickle down’ to the unwashed and illiterate below. Let’s face it, with government regulation out of the way, why should they bother anyway?
What rapidly followed was a free-for-all as large companies set about swallowing up their smaller competitors. Large companies became huge corporations, so big they began to actually control and take over governments. A whole industry called ‘lobbying’ developed, which was no more than a new name for a corrupt practice, that of feeding money and ‘gifts’ to lawmakers to ensure no law was passed that was detrimental to the corporation doing the lobbying.
Money was being sucked up by the corporations from the unwashed and illiterate masses , who were becoming worse and worse off. The masses themselves were being taxed more heavily, while corporate entities like Amazon, Google, and others, were paying next to nothing.
To rub salt in the wounds the corporates began moving all their production and service industries to Asia. They discovered they could save fortunes by paying Chinese, Cambodian, and Filipino workers little more than a bowl of rice a day to do work that was costing ten or twenty times as much in wages in the western world. Greed was paying big dividends – for some.
One of the problems with the unwashed and illiterate is their lack of solidarity. Leaderless, they have no voice. Even elections were a waste of time as all the politicians were in the pockets of the big companies. While many complained because they were starving, or having their houses taken away for not being able to pay the mortgage, everyone just shuffled about trying to survive without work or wages.
Eventually, unscrupulous braggards began to draw crowds of the unwashed and illiterate by telling them their lives could be better if only they voted for someone who was not a politician in the pockets of ‘big corps’. The braggard would sort the corporations once and for all and do away with the corruption of governments.
Gradually, the peasants listened to the rhetoric and responded. One country after another voted in a conman who promised to make life better and run honest government for the people. Once in power, in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, China, the Philippines, and many other nations, these despots reneged on their promises to the people and in many cases used cruel tactics to maintain power.
Even in the most democratic of nations, ‘populism’ as it was known, began to surface. Power drifted away from government and more towards one man. Perhaps the best example of them all was when Donald Trump, a conman businessman, became the leader of the free world as President of the United States of America.
Many were shocked at this turn of events. How could it happen? Why did it happen? The answer , of course, was glaringly obvious. Greed caused it to happen; the greed of huge corporations unleashed by greedy politicians who happily turned a blind eye to what was happening, just so long as their nests were well feathered in return.
When the unwashed and illiterate stop trusting politicians they’ll vote for someone who’s not a politician, who promises to shackle those corrupt politicians – to ‘drain the swamp’.
Such was Donald Trump. His mantras to ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Drain The Swamp,’ were chanted by thousands of Americans who turned out to his rallies. Once in power, he set out to destroy much that world leaders had set up to protect their citizens. He rubbished global climate change, and revoked all the environmental regulations brought in by his predecessors, gave even more money to the corporations in the form of huge tax concessions, but did little for the poor unwashed and illiterate of America.
He empowered the police services to use cruel tactics on anyone standing up to him, but was eventually brought down when he incited a violent mob to attack the Capital Building in Washington where Congress was housed. Members of Congress had to flee for their lives.
It was a moment in time when the possibility of the great democratic nation of America becoming a dictatorship came within a hair’s breadth of reality.
Such is the power of greed and the destruction it’s capable of wreaking, but where does it come from and is there anyway we can control it?
Evolution succeeds by the simple process of survival of the fittest, in conjunction with environmental factors. It worked well enough until Homo sapiens evolved into what we like to think of as intelligent beings. Survival of the fittest means that the one who gets the best sustenance, can evade predators while destroying lesser creatures, and adapt to changing environmental conditions, will generally come out on top in the animal and plant kingdoms.
The instinct to survive and be the ‘fittest’ was once a relatively simple process: eat, or be eaten, mate with another ‘fittest’ to produce strong, healthy, offspring, and be the strongest of your species. To achieve this required single-minded determination and a complete lack of regard for any opposition. It also helped to be bigger, and have more teeth, than anything else…
It’s become known as the ‘survival instinct’ and considered as natural as evolution itself. Of course, we humans have long since evolved out of such basic, instinctive, evolutionary needs. Or have we?
Maybe we just like to think we have. Certainly the majority of us have long given up roaming the savannahs and eating anything we can kill with our bare hands. It would be difficult to live that way in New York, or London, or Paris. Yet just as T. rex became the king of the world by being bigger and more powerful than any other creature around at the time, are we not just channeling the survival instincts of T. rex into our battles with each other for more power, more money, and more greed?
Donald Trump aimed to be king of the world, just like Tyrannosaurus rex…
…except T. rex didn’t aim for anything. It was just in the right place at the right time. There’s the difference. We humans can aim to be something. We can aim to be rich; we can aim to be more powerful than the next man, and we can closet those aims by simply calling them, ‘competition’. Competition is fine, competition is good, competition is actively encouraged throughout all aspects of society. Yet competition is all about being better than others. It’s about aiming for the top, whether in athletics, football, corporate hierarchy, political domination – or war.
Competition has rules, but how often are those rules not applied. In the rush of adrenalin during a football game rules get broken, fouls are common, if no referee was on hand it would likely become a free for all. In politics rules are broken all the time. It’s been labelled the dirtiest of businesses. Competition is so great there are often no rules followed at all.
Today, rules are being disregarded. In sport, illegal drugs are commonly used in a bid to be faster, stronger, more athletic than the competition; there are no longer rules to adhere to when climbing the ladder of corporate success. It’s perfectly okay to stab the opposition in the back to gain accession to the top seats in the boardroom. Politicians rip up every rule in the book in their bid for power. They line their bank accounts from the purses of the corporations who own them. In war, remote assassination by drone has become totally acceptable, when a few years ago it was a hideous war crime.
We no longer play by rules. We are constantly endeavoring to break them. Whether it’s a driver shooting a red light, or Donald Trump attempting to keep his presidential power by inciting his supporters to commit murder in the Capital Building, that force we recognise in animals as survival instinct, so important in the process of evolution, in Homo sapiens has now morphed into the destructive and powerful mechanism we label simply, “Greed”.
The Founding Fathers of America are long gone. If they were to return today they’d be appalled at how their efforts to provide stability, and a framework for competent government, have been so ruthlessly dashed aside. Unfortunately, they failed to take account of man’s greed for power – including their own.