The Amorality of the Free Market

Greed is a moral bad but a functional good. Greedy entrepreneurs have benefited the world with more than a few … Continued

Greed is a moral bad but a functional good. Greedy entrepreneurs have benefited the world with more than a few things without which we wouldn’t want to live. It was greed, for example, that led investors in the 1980s to buy so-called junk bonds. Junk bonds combined high yield with high risk. They were roundly condemned at the time by gatekeepers of public morality (at least one national politician, Rudy Giuliani, used this as a springboard, loudly prosecuting Michael Milken, the one-man brain trust of junk bonds). Yet junk bonds allowed FedEx and MCI to get off the ground, two budding ventures scorned by established financial lenders. There’s even an argument that junk bonds, had they not been vilified, could have financed enormous changes in the developing world, providing desperately needed funds that otherwise weren’t available.

Good and bad are entangled in human life; that’s a given. How, then, are we to weigh morals and expediency? For a certain segment of the population, the question is moot. Either they try for maximum return on the dollar without regard to conscience, or at the opposite end, they take Jesus literally when he says that a rich man has no more chance of getting into Heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But most of us are caught up in confusion; we feel conflicted about what worldly pleasure — and the money that buys gratification of all kinds — might be doing to our souls.

The gospel of greed was launched in the popular imagination by Gordon Gekko, the smug villain in the movie Wall Street, who pronounced one of the mantras of the go-go Eighties: “Greed is good.” Gekko made this declaration during a shareholders meeting, one of those now-familiar contests over “green mail,” by which ruthless takeover artists grabbed control of a corporation. Green mail is a naked appeal to greed, offering shareholders more for their stock than they could get on the open market. What matter if the takeover results in mass layoffs and the eventual collapse of the company? In the amorality of a free market, greed is the same as Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and that hand is attached to God.

“Wall Street” wasn’t deep, but its central war mirrored the melodrama of Satan tempting the innocent, with Gekko as chief tempter. In reality, greed has prospered far beyond the scriptwriter’s imagination. It doesn’t take deep cynicism to explain both Gulf wars in terms of greedy corporations protecting the oil interests of America (and failing both times unless you are fortunate enough to be part of the oil industry or Haliburton). It’s not so much that greed is immoral but something deeper: does morality even have a say? The entanglement of good and bad keeps shifting and changing. Is it immoral for the Saudis to profit from skyrocketing oil prices? Most Americans think so. Is it immoral for America to consume a third of the world’s natural resources and in the bargain demand the lowest price for them? Most of the world thinks so. Yet nothing is cut and dried. As someone recently pointed out, the U.S. is the one country everyone else hates and everyone else wants to move to.

In the end, there’s a disconnect between public and private morality. What corporations and governments do (ruining people’s retirement funds, killing an enemy en masse) is unthinkable for the individual. Few societies have successfully bridged this gap. The only answer I can come up with is that only consciousness can prevail. When you find yourself having to make a difficult moral choice, your choice comes intuitively. One person automatically resorts to violence, another automatically resists violence. In the larger scheme this doesn’t mark the difference between good and bad. It marks the stages of evolution that consciousness has always gone through and will continue to.

Deepak Chopra
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  • Aquarius

    There is left, there is right and there is up.

  • Garak

    Greed is not good. Greed is useful. And not all the time. Greed brought us the tech bubble and now the subprime bubble. Greed also brought us technological innovation, as well as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and drug dealing. Drug dealers are the ultimate capitalists, putting profit ahead of all else. Just like unrestrained biological growth is cancer, so too unrestrained capitalism. Capitalism is not a religion. It is a mere economic system. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Left alone, it will run amuck. See above. Watched and regulated carefully, it can benefit society.

  • JWS

    Mr. Chopra, you have framed the quandary of greed well. Many think of only the individual, but many of our religious teachers/prophets point to the community also. And there are other contributers to this site that have pointed this out. In short, Greed can help one individual at the expense of another, and it can similarly help one community at the expense of another.Greed seems to be easily defined as a relative concept, dependent on cultural bias and worldview. Is there any aspect to it that is absolute?

  • Rob L.

    Deepo, you’re a fraud! ‘Renowned scientist Albert Einstein dismissed the Bible as a collection of “pretty childish” legends and belief in God as a “product of human weaknesses,” according to a letter to be auctioned this week.Einstein, who was Jewish, also rejects the notion that Jews were God’s chosen people. ‘

  • DeeEl

    As someone in the private sector, I see the portrayal as very one-dimensional. Sectors, such as the financial sector, tend to move money where money is to be made. Sometimes this gets into very questionable areas morally speaking.Large corporations present similar conundrums. One advances through a large corporate bureaucracy by excelling at assignments. One has little control over the nature or effect of these assignments. One could be developing a green technology or setting up oil rigs along the coast of an impoverished African country. What is the effect of both activities? The problem with all bureaucracies, governmental or corporate, is few are truly in-charge although everyone has some kind of contribution to the end result. Having worked in both kind of bureaucracies, one is sometimes faced with a moral dilemma that can only be solved by walking away. The individual has little leverage. To walk away is to leave behind years of hard work, however. Amoral and immoral actions often arise from very mundane considerations.What I see now in my work is very different. Small scale entrepreneurialism offers many opportunities to dream, put shape to your dream and offer it to the public. While Gordon Gekko may be the dark side, consider the good that the telephone, the transistor, and the PC have brought to the world. These came from the private sector. Their creators were not primarily out to make a buck to but bring shape to their dreams. In the process some made very big bucks but still did so with their true passion which they saw as a societal good. Let’s look at the world communism brought us and the one free markets brought us. The world has decided on the latter for good reason. It is easy, cliched and inaccurate to use the Gordon Gekkos as the metaphor for all of the private sector. Our world is always messy and filled with moral ambiguity. He is not the only metaphor. Jack Kilby and Bob Noyce offer equally compelling examples. If faced with a world led by supposedly moral religious leaders (let’ consider religious oppression in Iran and the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandals) or corporate leaders, I’ll opt for the latter. While amoral capitalism has some real down sides, what we would face in a world led by moralists?

  • Tim

    To be greedy is to covet. Ex 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”Covetousness is an immoderate love of money, the root of all evil, an insatiable desire of having more, and of having more than a man’s own and never having enough. Greed is a form of coveting. The New Testament tells us more abbot the nature of coveting. In Col 3:5 we find this: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”This time we see how coveting is related to idolatry. Of course, we know from the second commandment that idolatry is a sin. So these things are very well connected. The covetous man, and the idolater, worship the same matter and substance, even gold and silver; the covetous man lays up his money, makes no use of it, as if it was something sacred; he looks at it, and adores it, and puts his trust and confidence in it, and his heart is so much set upon it, that he neglects the worship of God.So yes to be greedy is always wrong and when greed finally leads to the full blown sin of covetous behavior, this is what causes wars and murder and all kinds of terrible things.

  • Bruce Cassler

    The reference to Yeshua bar Yusef is interesting. Like most Jewish prophets, Yeshua recognized the inherent evil in a social system in which 80% labored like slaves to keep 20% of the population in luxury and wealth. Any “rich man” who was rich under that system seems not to have a place in the Kingdom of God. Yet Yeshua had a disciple–Yehudah–who was Keeper of the Purse. He preumably paid the taxes due to Caesar. Yeshua accepted a gift of expensive perfume from a female admirer. He walked that thin line with care and like the prophets called on others to do the same. “Free” enterprise is not free. It costs somebody something in the end. We need to be diligent and thoughtful about our application of the enterprise part so that the free part benefits the many rather than the few.

  • Garyd

    Exactly what is greed? Chopra marches exceedingly far around the block but never manage to quite define the term.What do the rest of you think?

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Hmmm, greed?? Everyone knows the definition so let us look for early examples in an interesting domain, the founders and foundations of religions.In Islam, we have the greed-lust driven, womanizing, warmongering, hallucinating founder of said religion the long-dead Arab, Mohammed.In Christianity (including Mormonism), the “historic” founder was the simple preacher man, long-dead Jewish fellow, Jesus. Not much greed there but one can make a case for the following steps for the start of greed in the said religion:Christian economics 101:The Baptizer drew crowds and charged for the “dunking”. The historical Jesus saw a good thing and continued dunking and preaching the good word but added “healing” as an added charge to include free room and board. Sure was better than being a poor peasant but he got a bit too zealous and they nailed him to a tree. Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and “Gentilized” the good word to the “big buck” world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. Along comes Constantine. He saw the growing rich Christian community and recognized a new tax base so he set them “free”. The Holy Roman “Empirers”/Popes/Kings/Queens et al continued the money grab selling access to JC and heaven resulting in some of today’s An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue, ( Professors Crossan and Wright are On Faith panelists). “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”Judaism – Because the foundations are so mythical, it is impossible to be historical about greed in said religion. The historical King Herod and his off-springs were with the assistance of Rome, however, were a very greedy bunch. Hinduism and Buddhism- A Google search will take you to many instances of greed in the leadership of said religions even though like other religions greed is a major sin and disorder.

  • Cashpoor

    Greed VS. Need is a balance to which is your own lifes true test. Understanding greed is to understand human nature. Human nature has been self destruction and recreation in a cyclical downward funnel. The only thing that religion brings is sharing greed in a way to make the associates believe they are not living in sin, but supporting greatness. In pure essence, greatness comes from within, and from within is the richest treasure of all. And at that treasures core is love of all, either good nor evil which are parts of duality and opposite ends of a whole. We all are greedy and selfless. There is only one difference, which lays in your core of consciousness and perspective and is visible to everything else that shares existance with what you think is reality.

  • Angela

    Deepak,Greed is immoral and like the post below, more importantly; it’s coveting! nothing more to say…

  • JWS

    GARYD, I also noticed that Bishop Wright did a similar thing in that he defined greed in purely relatavistic terminology which left me unsatisfied. In thinking about it, an alternate definition occurred to me:Greed is the type of desire and resulting action that occurs in the absence of Agape love.Agape love can happen on an individual basis and it can happen in the private sector (e.g. thinking in terms of the good of a company’s employees, shareholders, etc.). But I still wonder if my definition is too simplistic.

  • GeorgiaSon

    Mr. Chopra, I’m afraid, has not contributed much to what ought to be a real debate over the issue of reconciling the pursuit of economic self-interests with Christianity. The title of his article alone skews the debate. Wouldn’t “The Amorality of Rampant Consumerism” have been better, not just in terms of a headline, but in terms of how it might have shaped the whole debate? The free market is a given. How much and on what products individuals spend their money is up for grabs.Mr. Chopra then makes a second mistake by raising the devil theory. He picks out a stereotype from a fictional movie to try to make his points. Why not have focused on real corporations? But even more to my point–why not focus on Christians as consumers, not on stereotypical Wall Street villains?Raising the old chestnut about the Gulf wars being fought solely on oil takes us even further from the truth.Jesus Christ was an itinerant preacher who never owned many more possessions than the clothes on his back. His entire earthly ministry was one of compassion and concern for the poor, the powerless, and the dispossessed. His closest associates came from that strata of society. Yet, today, he is represented on earth by the rich, powerful Roman Catholic church, which operates out of massive cathedrals? Or by Protestant denominations and churches, whose leaders do not seem to want for material goods and many of which seem to be trying to out-do each other in who can build the biggest mega-churches and pay their pastors the biggest salaries? Not to mention the TV evangelists whose greed and schilling for donations has become a national joke without deterring them one iota from continuing to do it?I look forward to Christian voices talking to me about the disconnect between Jesus and his affluent followers who see no contradiction at all between his life and teachings and the greedy, rapacious lives as consumers that they lead. Mr. Chopra fell far short of the mark.

  • Seeker of Truth

    As a rich New-Age Guru with a thriving business enterprise what role does greed for money, power and fame play in your life?How much of the money you earn is used for selfless causes?

  • Leah

    From a Jewish perspective, I am reminded of two commandments: Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not covet.Enough said.

  • Garyd

    JWS,In some respects greed is the inability to differentiate between one’s needs and one’s wants.Greed is worshiping stuff or the thing that buys stuff rather than God.

  • A-gnostic

    An excellent example of the personal suffering that occurs due to a greedy, egocentric dominated consciousness was aired on CBS Sixty Minutes on June 1, 2008. The profile of Tom Perkins, a self made wealthy venture capitalist who is trapped in his attachments to material goods, offered a great example of an ego self driven person. One example shown during the profile was his obsession with owning the largest privately owned sailboat in the world. While discussing the price of the yacht, Mr. Perkins was too embarrassed to reveal the actual price of the boat because even he was aware of the good that could have been done around the world to alleviate suffering of others with his money. His better nature of consciousness exists but is clearly overshadowed by his overwhelmingly dominate egocentric nature.Some may argue that he does not suffer from this monstrosity of selfishness since he obviously lives an easy life of wealth and luxury. But his ego driven self is continually searching for relief of his own suffering through the accumulation of material wealth. Despite the fact that he should never have to work again and could provide great service to his fellow humans and other sentient beings of earth, he proclaimed that he was selling the largest sailboat and seeking a new nautical toy: a sports submarine.

  • Anonymous

    A-Gnostic – >> Some may argue that he does not suffer from this monstrosity of selfishness since he obviously lives an easy life of wealth and luxury. But his ego driven self is continually searching for relief of his own suffering through the accumulation of material wealth. This is a common lie propagated by those who would try to convince the poor and needy about the >> suffering

  • Anonymous

    The *suffering* of the rich *because* of the luxuries they cannot live without is the lie propagated by those who would justify the total indifference of most rich towards the existential needs of the poor.

  • Anonymous

    The Emptiness of Theology by Richard DawkinsScience is responsible for the following knowledge about our origins. We know approximately when the universe began and why it is largely hydrogen. We know why stars form and what happens in their interiors to convert hydrogen to the other elements and hence give birth to chemistry in a world of physics. We know the fundamental principles of how a world of chemistry can become biology through the arising of self replicating molecules. We know how the principal of self replication gives rise, through Darwinian selection, to all life, including humans.It is science and science alone that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover, in fascinating, over-whelming, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions theology has held a view that has conclusively been proved wrong. Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunize against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria.”The Emptiness of Theology” by Richard Dawkins published in “Free Inquiry” Spring 1998.