Greed is good, as the famous Gordon Gecko quote goes. And for while, back in the roaring 80s, it was. But today, you’re certain of applause if you decry greed among bankers, financiers, the so-called 1%, maybe even politicians. Greed is suspected as the root of all evil, certainly as the root cause of the recent and to some extent ongoing financial crisis or crises. In popular opinion, and consequently in politics, such swings of the pendulum happen all the time. It was that way when the Roaring 1920s gave way to the 1930s, and similarly to today, greed was easily named as the main culprit by many observers.
Calvin Coolidge, having removed himself by choice from the helm of the ship of state, was out of office by then. He mused about the causes of the Great Depression:
“We may say that it was the result of greed and selfishness. But what body is to be specifically charged with that? Were the wage earners too greedy in getting all they could for their work? Were the managers of enterprise, big or little, too greedy in trying to operate at a profit? Were the farmers too greedy in their efforts to make more money by tilling more land and enlarging their production? The most we can say is that there has been a general lack of judgment so widespread as to involve practically the whole country.”
I think Coolidge has a point here. The central question seems to be that those who decry greed disregard the acquisitive side of human nature. Worse, by pointing the finger at “the greedy,” they assume the role of arbiter of what is right and proper for human beings to aspire to. And here is the root cause of the progressive impetus – telling other people what is right, how things ought to be done, what is fair and equitable, how wealth ought to be distributed, how much money constitutes a fair income. By instinct and by experience, Coolidge recoiled from such social engineering.