Greed is Not a Virtue
David Korten: Profit-centered market fundamentalism has become a national religion.
This is the fourteenth of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK
We humans are living out an epic morality play. For millennia humanity’s most celebrated spiritual teachers have taught that society works best and we all enjoy our greatest joy and fulfillment when we share, cooperate, and are honest in our dealings with one another.
But for the past few decades, this truth has been aggressively challenged by a faith called market fundamentalism—an immoral and counter-factual economic ideology that has assumed the status of a modern state religion. Its believers worship the God of money. Stock exchanges and global banks are their temples. They proclaim that everyone does best when we each seek to maximize our individual financial gain without regard to the consequences for others.
In the eyes of a market fundamentalist, to sacrifice profit for some presumed social or environmental good is immoral. The result is a public culture that proclaims greed is a virtue and sharing is a sin.
Having established control of the institutions of the economy, media, education, government, and even religion, market fundamentalists initiated a global social experiment to test their theory. The results are now in.
The prophets of the older faith traditions were right. Our common future depends on rediscovering their truth and redefining our public culture and governing institutions accordingly.
The following are some of the more visible elements of Wall Street’s global campaign of moral perversion.
- It uses control of media outlets, advertising, and politicians to shape and spread a global culture of individualistic greed, material self-indulgence, ruthless competition, and moral irresponsibility.
- Through the pursuit and celebration of financial gain at any cost, it provides role models for immoral behavior.
- It undermines democracy and the legitimacy of government by buying politicians to do its bidding.
- It uses student loan programs to get the best and brightest youth mired in debts they can repay only by selling themselves to jobs that serve Wall Street interests.
- It buys up and monopolizes control of the world’s land and water resources in anticipation of extracting monopoly profits by charging what the market will bear as scarcity increases.
- It uses its financial power and creative accounting skills to manipulate markets and obscure market signals, as when helping governments hide their debt or helping corporate CEOs hide their insider bets against the future of their own companies.
- It buys the deeply discounted debt obligations of hapless underwater homeowners and countries on the open market and then demands full value payment from governments or philanthropists who step in to lend a helping hand to the afflicted.
- It puts in place global rules requiring that if a government introduces regulations that prevent a foreign corporation from harming or killing people with its toxic products or discharges, the country’s government must compensate the corporation for the profits it estimates it will lose.
By capitalism’s perverse moral logic, if a person sells toxic assets by knowingly misrepresenting them as sound, the fault lies not with the misrepresentation of the seller, but rather with the lack of due diligence on the part of the overly trusting borrower. When the assets prove worthless and threaten both the solvency of both the seller and the borrower, the logic says the party responsible for the misrepresentation has a moral obligation to demand redress from the government, “Buy my toxic assets at face value and make me whole so that I return to my trade in toxic assets, or I will be forced to stop lending and crash the economy.”
Step back to take in the big picture, and it turns out Wall Street market fundamentalists have proclaimed the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth to be virtues. In turn they have proclaimed the seven life-serving virtues of humility, sharing, love, compassion, self-control, moderation, and passion to be sins against the market.
There is a widespread sense that with Wall Street’s apparent recovery, the window of opportunity for serious structural change has passed. Such a judgment, however, is premature. Far from closing, the window of opportunity for serious change continues to widen as public awareness of Wall Street corruption grows and true and appropriate moral outrage builds.
Most psychologically healthy adults recognize in their heart of hearts the moral perversion of the old economy, but may fear to speak up because so many experts—including even some religious leaders—continuously assure us in so many words that greed is good, even that God wants us to be financially rich and financial wealth is a mark of God’s favor.
If all who share a mature moral consciousness find the courage to speak the simple truth that greed is driving us to collective self-destruction and cooperation is essential to our common salvation, we can put the perversion behind us and secure the future of our children.
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