Cupidity or Covetousness?

by Glenn Fairman  5/27/14

As with all Post-Moderns, Truth is an instrumentality towards what Mr. Obama perceives as a “Higher” goal and the presumptive fig leaf of egalitarianism is as good a diversion as any to mask his accretion of power to the State. Personally, I see nothing particularly noble either in the Invisible Hand of Capitalism or in the covetousness that underlies the Collectivist edifice. Nevertheless, having to either choose between self-interest and altruistic dream castles, I will always heartily choose the former.

We should not forget that these economic systems do not of themselves reflect the economy of God, since our depravity is inconsistent with the redeemed reality that permeates the City of God. Be that as it may, the inequality that results from human cupidity is far more palatable than an enforced homogeneity “for our own good” by men who neither understand the limits of their carnal reach nor the subtle perfidies of the human heart.
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Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at arete5000@dslextreme.com.


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16 Responses to Cupidity or Covetousness?

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I see nothing particularly noble either in the Invisible Hand of Capitalism…

    I love the invisible hand. That hand must be clothed in proper ethics, of course. But to write with that hand is to be free to make choices and to own the fruits of one’s labor.

    It’s about a system whereby, as noted by Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

    The idea of benevolence rising from an undirected and un-centralized will is anathema to the Obama and statist types. And the idea that it takes more than the market itself to make a good and free society is somewhat anathema to the libertarian types.

    But the market truly has a collective intelligence to it (and an implicit benevolence) that command economies can never have. Government can help manage the evenness of the playing field and facilitate commerce via reasonable regulation. But it can never be the lifeblood of a good and moral society. It can facilitate it or ruin it, but it cannot create it. That good lifeblood springs from a deeper source.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    While I would agree that it has an aggregate virtue, unless it is tamed by an individualist morality which limits avarice (Christianity rightly practiced) we shall have what China and Russia has, that vile species of “Gangster Capitalism.” The Dickensian world created great fortunes and sowed the seeds for the Fabians. The trick shall be, if such is possible given the fallen nature of man, a free lessaiz faire system that rejects cupidity, so we shall not deal with the foolishness of systems that spring from covetousness. As I said, the one is preferable to the other……but absent the Christian ethic of temperance, it can be an equally venomous beast.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Dickensian world created great fortunes and sowed the seeds for the Fabians.

      Well, there are two sides to even that story. People willingly gathered into the cities to grab these factory jobs. In very few cases was anyone holding a gun to their heads. The same as in China. While liberals decry the low wages, the Chinese are said to flock to factory jobs because they can make far more than they would back on the farm.

      If we take the long view, we see that it was capitalism that has pulled mankind out of the drudgery of a generally squalid and poor agrarian life. Yes, there were some growing pains. And, yes, wherever there is the human element there are excesses. But mark me down as one who would rather have so-called “unfettered capitalism” (which does not exist) and who, perhaps most importantly, understands that such a label is thrown about in the first place as a vicious marketing campaign against freedom (aka “free markets”) by and for totalitarian socialists.

      At the end of the day, no system will automatically create a virtuous people. But the free market system – with safeguards such as enforcement of contracts, freedom from corruption, etc. – will tend to produce a more virtuous people, for people do not have to steal or bribe in order to get ahead in this system.

      And even quite un-virtuous people, through capitalism and the free market, can turn their Genghis Khan-like impulses into something productive and useful as they channel their desire for conquest, competition, and growing an empire into making a company that produces products and services that are of use and that are wanted.

      This is the true reason statism is bad. The excess of the free market tend to be reined in by the consumer. Absent collusion with the state (which is a huge problem that we call “crony capitalism”), a company can’t force you to buy their product. A corrupt company, or one simply run by rotten people, will tend to go out of business.

      But the same is not true in government. As Obama has shown, the bigger a liar and deceiver you are, the higher you can go. And if you can control the money, you can hand out favors quite separate from the constraints of immediate market forces. You can borrow or print money. You can create an ingrained and society-wide corruption that does not go away as easily or as quickly as some company that has made a plethora of bad business decisions.

      Perhaps the greatest achievement of the evil Left is convincing your normal American that it is business that cannot be trusted and is most in need of reining in instead of government.

      And with the free market, covetousness itself can be channeled into a productive use. If you covet your neighbor’s car, you have two choices: You can convince people that the government ought to confiscate your neighbor’s car and/or give you one just as nice. Or you can go out and earn your own car. You can take your desire for a nice car – perhaps prompted in some measure by covetousness – and put those energies to productive and good use in the free market.

  3. Glenn Fairman says:

    And to remark further, Adam Smith’s system did not spring from the head of Athena, but is the natural byproduct of Christendom i.e. Britannia. Moral freedom, rightly understood, must accompany free markets, as well as a moral benevolence that tames the harshness of “creative destruction.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I quite agree. There is a certain amount of overt and self-conscious moral benevolence that must tame the harshness of creative-destruction. Even so, you might agree that most of this should be of a personal nature because “benevolence” from a politician in this regard is almost an oxymoron. They are good at advertising and marketing their benevolence but it tends to be a benevolence that simply favors one narrow interest group over another. The “benevolence,” such as it is, is directed primarily toward election and re-election of the “saints” distributing government largess.

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    Indeed

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    All that said (above), the Christian life – indeed, one could say the enlightened life – is about measuring things by a different yardstick than merely the material. Coveting can get you only so far, even if one has channeled that impulse into something productive. They don’t call it a “rat race” for nothing. And we humans surely exist, or can exist, on a plain above that of the rat.

    And that new measuring stick for life does not exist merely because one is justifying one’s own weaknesses or failures (although both can be a prompting for giving value to other considerations). One measures differently because one has gained an esoteric, but not unreal, appreciation for a richness and texture to life above the mundane. And one might even have such promptings and gain new ways of measuring not just because one has run a lap or two in the rat race, has set aside his comfortable pile of cheese, and now has the time (for all intents and purposes) for some self-satisfying navel-gazing – although even this mundane human element can lead to that different yardstick.

    As Dennis Prager has noted, there is nothing necessarily bad about the profane. It is an inherent part of life, and evil or good can course through it. And the opposite of holy is not necessarily the profane. But the holy – valuing things in a metaphysical, religious, creative, and/or artistic way elevated and nurtured by seeing beyond the morbidly habitual and duly utilitarian – is a worthy and necessary goal for the Good life (which is not necessarily the “good life”).

    For many, the market (trinkets and gadgets) seems to be all they have. And it’s almost embarrassing to see people who want more grabbing for truly second-rate spiritualities such as membership in the Church of Global Warming or some such thing (when they’re not simply content to collect their second car or third wife). Or (as is typical) doing something far more sinister: reaching for the State as the intellectual, spiritual, and moral way to a hoped-for transcendence (a topic covered very well by Jonah in “Liberal Fascism”).

    The free market is a tool for a free people, no more, no less. We can make of it too much, of course. But without it, there is less chance for free will to operate – where we have the minimal leisure to suppose, to ponder, and to sanctify – and more chance for coercion. And can we as easily come to either God or a better sense of this world through the coercion of corrupt others? (And surely the corrupt people understand this implicitly and so flood us with their lies.)

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    Greed isn’t nice, but it isn’t necessarily anti-social. One can desire more and more without wanting to rob others. Covetousness is inherently anti-social because it involves wanting what others have. Thus, greed can be useful economically, but covetousness leads naturally to class warfare.

    • Glenn Fairman says:

      Tim: you have just articulated my thesis for the upcoming symposium. Curse your nimble brain……..

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      As a graduate of Rush Limbaugh’s School of Advanced Conservative Studies, one of the first lessons we learn is that “Words Mean Things.” And certainly there is a difference between the meaning of the words “greed” and “covetousness.”

      But how does one know when the human heart bleeds gradually from one to the other? And even if it does, it does not solve our problem, for it’s not so much about having these feelings or desires. It’s about how they play out. It’s the mechanism, not the emotion.

      In the free market, the maker of some Widget may indeed covet the market share of some other Widget maker. We can call it “healthy competition” or some other thing. We might call it “greed” or even the pursuit of the American Dream. But what matters in this case is not the internal emotion or desire but the mechanism by which he pursues them. Is one willing to play by the civilized and legal rules of the game, for instance? If so, I really don’t care if Steve Jobs covets Bill Gate’s market share in desktop computers.

      I think these moral issues need to be taken out of the laboratory and applied to real life. And real life today — in a free market system — is different from what existed thousands of years ago.

      Certainly there is a point to be made that one should put a damper on covetous feelings, for a feeling or thought can certainly lead to an action. And there is much to be said for that. But as Adam Smith noted, we really don’t, and shouldn’t, give a damn what motivates the butcher or baker. And this is not some esoteric point but a central point, for if we condemn people for “greed” or even “covetousness,” we can fall into that collectivist trap that Ayn Rands warns us about.

      There used to be laws against usury (not strictly defined as excessive interest rates), but now loaning money (with certain established rules and protections) is a good and common thing. To quote Gordy Gecko, “Greed is good.”

      Well, I’m not sure if greed is actually good, but one man’s greed may be another man’s healthy ambition to better himself. The hearts of men can be difficult to judge. But we can certainly judge whether men break the law and whether (perhaps more importantly) they set up the law in the first place as a way to gain unfair advantage. The flip side of crony capitalism (whereby business tries to secure an unfair advantage) is Marxism (whereby would-be governmental Lords and Masters, in confluence with the mooching masses, hope to gain unfair advantage). The Forgotten Man stands somewhere in the middle.

      I do think the Judeo-Christian tradition, properly understood, should be the basis of the law rather than Marxism or Leftism. It matters greatly that our laws are based on the idea of true justice as in Leviticus 19:15 (“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly”) as opposed to such misguided and perhaps even evil people such as Justice Sodomayor whose value system is Marxism and thus there is not justice between one man and another, for a man in this system is not treated as a man. He is treated as part of a class. His individuality is subsumed by a collectivist mentality.

  7. Glenn Fairman says:

    As I mentioned before, there is virtue in the “invisible hand” that allows self interest to fill the needs of people ‘s material wants. However, I am not so sure about those who now wield capitalism as a club thrice removed: those arbitragers and derivatives people who toil in the abstractions of money and wealth. It seems that they do not produce any thing but personal profit and leave the rusted hulks of companies in their wakes as they suck profits and leave the rest to wither, as would a spider. This is not the capitalism of Hayek or Smith, but something quite gruesome and wicked –unnaturally devoid of making. It is these who are creating that nightmare house of cards that will soon collapse: having been supported by nothing but duct tape and rapaciousness. Financial technology has given men, who are prone to avarice, great power in injecting their venom around the earth. Even a robber baron was limited as to the amount of damage he could do to the lives of others, and he in fact produced jobs. But as the great financial Tower of Babel stands now, it resembles a game of Jenga: where one piece is pulled from the edifice and the entire structure collapses. This is an inevitability. The world economy is beyond sickness because it grew to be a monster—far beyond what nature intended. It will result in a lever that will allow for the control of every nation of the world who has bought into this perversion of finance.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      However, I am not so sure about those who now wield capitalism as a club thrice removed: those arbitragers and derivatives people who toil in the abstractions of money and wealth. It seems that they do not produce any thing but personal profit and leave the rusted hulks of companies in their wakes as they suck profits and leave the rest to wither, as would a spider.

      If you can suffer through the sheer repetitive vulgarity of it, you should watch “Wolf of Wall Street” which I reviewed here.

      I don’t disagree, Glenn, that there is that element. But the problem is that it has become the driving caricature of capitalism. In true Alinsky fashion, we are being defined by our worst excesses. I know good and intelligent people who still think the housing boom and bust of a few years ago was simply about the excesses of Wall Street.

      The real story (told by Thomas Sowell in “The Housing Boom and Bust”) is that Wall Street was actually carrying water for the Democrats and their socialist policies by repackaging the dog-shit and high-risk subprime mortgage loans and spreading them around. And as Sowell notes, all would have been well even then had the home owners actually been able to pay their mortgages.

      Instead, in the minds of many, “Wall Street” (a somewhat Dickensian caricature) is the villain. And I have no doubt that there are villains on Wall Street. I have no doubt that we need an SEC keeping watch and making sure that people aren’t cheating. But I have no inherent problem with Wall Street or even Wall Street types.

      And in my view, the house of cards is our government going further into debt now by one trillion dollars per year. The house of cards is the up to 100 trillion of unfunded socialist entitlements (primarily Medicare and Social Security). As long as we get government the hell out of business (and vice versa), let these Wall Street types fail. The problem is that many of these big places know that if they fail the government will bail them out. There is a distinct lack of market forces which is the problem, and which was the exact problem regarding that recent housing boom and bust.

      I don’t know if there is any disentangling this mess. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when any “crisis” occurs, capitalism is always blamed even though it is arguable that it was government that was at fault. And government uses this “blame” as the basis to further its hooks into the markets. It’s now a vicious cycle.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        There were certain aspects of malfeasance in finance that didn’t result from government misbehavior (as most of it was; people don’t realize that anti-discrimination law by then banned any action that had a “disparate impact” racially, which effectively required subprime mortgages). The nature of derivatives was probably always riskier than the people who marketed and bought them ever admitted, since it was almost impossible to verify the value of the underlying investments. Most importantly, most investment ratings companies (such as Moody’s) are paid by those they rate, which provides a natural bias in favor of overrating them.

  8. Glenn Fairman says:

    I guess we should define our terms and determine what capitalism is and what it is not. For my money, Capitalism is not a subspecies of piracy.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Fine. I’m not for piracy. But you’re speaking in very general terms, Glenn, not about specific offenses. I doubt that I would apologize for specific offenses. But because you’re speaking in general terms, it ends up sounding more like you’re critiquing capitalism, in general, and calling it inherently the province of pirates.

      I would say that capitalism is inherently capitalism, good and bad. Where there are pirates breaking the law, they should be prosecuted. But where there are stock traders making millions and seemingly producing nothing, I think we just have to see that as an aspect of the system. It’s like they say, people should not witness the making of either sausages or the law….and perhaps that includes the inner workings of Wall Street as well.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Well, we must remember to distinguish between free-market capitalism (in which businesses compete for the favor of the buyers) and crony capitalism (in which businesses compete for the favor the boyars). The former can be honest; the latter is inherently corrupt.

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