Tonight I want to expand on something I touched upon a few weeks ago: Gordon Gekko’s famous axiom, “Greed is good.” With the sequel to Wall Street now in the theaters, it is worth examining that sentiment a bit more closely. What’s more, one’s thinking about this issue has profound implications for public policy.
First, let’s tone down the expression a bit, to make allowance for the hyperbole Gekko was employing to make a vivid impression on his listeners. Instead of “greed,” which inevitably has uncomplimentary connotations, let’s say “self-interest is good.” Even that relatively mild expression will have its detractors on the left, including none other than Michelle Obama, who you might remember exhorted young people to go into public service, or the Americorps, or some other worthy non-profit volunteer vocation rather than go follow the mighty dollar into the business world.
And heaven forbid one should become successful at pursuing his or her self-interest, and thereby become “rich.” For the left, that just means they ought to be paying more in taxes – remember when Joe Biden said it was “patriotic” to pay higher taxes? Never mind that the top income brackets, no matter how you define that, pay a share of total income taxes vastly disproportionate to their share of income.
So it’s not really the case that the “rich” don’t pay their fair share. I think at its heart the redistributionist impulse springs from a notion among progressives that these people don’t deserve to have so much money – that almost by definition if one is sitting atop a pile of dough, it is the product of avarice, of cheating, of gaming the system. It is clearly not fair.
Of course, it does matter who the rich person is – nobody seems to mind that Derek Jeter, for instance, will earn about $100,000 per game for the next three years – let’s call it twice the average guy’s annual salary every time he suits up, even if he doesn’t play; and that’s not even including bonuses for winning awards like the Golden Glove, or MVP, etc. Ben Affleck, touting his new movie on NPR, pointed to the fact that CEO salaries have gone from 9X the average worker’s pay to 40X; he didn’t seem to think it necessary to mention that he was paid five times the average salary, $250,000, just for showing up at a casino opening one afternoon.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t begrudge these men their millions. As I’ve said before, rich people do most of the hiring and pay most of the taxes in our country, so I want them to be much richer, and I especially want for there to be many more of them. I have also said that there is almost nothing a rich person can do with his or her money that is not good for the economy – whether the money is invested in stocks, bonds, start-ups, or vulture funds; whether it is spent on a new factory or a houseful of flowers; or whether it is given to fund an endowment. And all of those uses have the virtue of being for purposes chosen by the person who earned the money.
But there is a more fundamental reason to favor wealth and the wealthy: and that is because it is the morally superior position. Yes, I know, liberals like to claim the moral high ground when they tell us rich people ought to have their money taxed away to be used for the good of society. But the one bright shining principle that distinguishes this country as a unique experiment in human history is its embrace of liberty. You see it all over the founding documents: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other societies, one’s ability to achieve one’s dreams is limited by caste, class, guild, or government; here, a boy from a broken home, raised by his grandmother and subsisting at times on food stamps, can grow up to be President.
Our founding documents do say, “all men are created equal” but only in the sense that we have no inherited nobility; they are endowed by their Creator not with equal abilities, but the right to chase their dreams. They have the right not to happiness, but to pursue it.
An America that limits one’s ability to create a business, to establish a family reputation, to provide for spouse and children, to work hard and enjoy the fruits of that labor, is an America that puts shackles on its most energetic and productive citizens. It is harmful to the broader society – both because those productive people are the engine of growth, and because a society that holds them back hampers the ambitions of others – and it is a betrayal of the moral foundation of this country. An image from another current movie is appropriate here: Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputian envy-mongers trying to keep him from being all he could be.
And, lest the “fairness” posse make the claim that the government is needed to pry the money loose from the privileged to help the less fortunate, let me point out that those who believe that it is not the government’s job to care for the needy tend to put their money where their belief is – conservatives are more generous in their charitable giving than liberals, church-goers more generous than secularists, free-marketers more so than social democrats, and so on. If you believe government should be charitable with other people’s money, you are less likely to be charitable with your own.
So “greed” – tempered by the kind of ethics, humility and sense of responsibility that used to be a given in our society – is not just a good thing, it is the best thing this country has going for it. The possibility of succeeding beyond our wildest hopes is what draws out energy, entrepreneurialism, ambition, creativity – the things that will keep this country at the leading edge of mankind’s march toward the future.