Is Greed Really Good for Business?

Our friend Prof. Jay Richards of the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business gives a quick lesson this week on the role of greed in business. Is the for-profit world only about making profits and nothing else?

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: business is all about money and greed. Just think of any business person you see in the movies. They’re almost always greedy. There’s Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. There’s the money-grubbing Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s fitting that Jay mentions Scrooge, because CEI’s own Fred L. Smith, Jr. has become famous over the last few Christmas seasons for rehabilitating the reputation of the legendary character for Forbes. As Fred puts it:

…from a Victorian perspective, Scrooge’s actions seem inexplicable. As F.A. Hayek recognized, our long tribal prehistory exerts a continuing influence on our views toward markets. The communitarian tribal mores “which are essential to the cohesion of the small group,” Hayek noted, continue to hold greater emotional appeal than that of the market, even though they are “irreconcilable with the order, the productivity, and the peace of a great society of free men.”  Civilization’s challenge, he believed, was to legitimize the morality of economic liberty, to move beyond the limited kinship-based exchanges of the past.

In that context, Scrooges may better be seen as symbolizing those transitional figures who were critical to the creation of a wealthier England—and a wealthier, fairer world. By demonstrating that markets better address the concerns of mankind than do the restrictive covenants of localized communities, these individuals paved the way to our modern world.

The virtues that are cultivated by the competitive and cooperative processes of commerce are also highlighted in CEI’s award-winning short film I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit.

As I wrote last year in an op-ed for Investor’s Business Daily:

“I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit” is a short-form documentary that gives viewers a look into the history and practice of the distilling business through interviews with historian Garrett Peck, master distiller Rick Wasmund, and bar owner Bill Thomas. Each of them contributes an important part of the story about how this popular product makes it from the field to the flask.

Along the way, new ideas are tested, businesses are built, money is made, and friendships are formed. And in the case of Wasmund, a humble whiskey maker meets his future wife.

We could uncover a similar web of stories connected to the development of lots of other products, of course. Each industry — from fashion design to manufacturing to software development — has its own complex and idiosyncratic way of evolving, and creates its own network of friendships and professional associations. Even the most familiar products can reveal surprisingly profound truths about the world around us. In fact, it is sometimes the most ordinary ones that can best capture our imagination.

For more from Jay Richards, see his recent books, like Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot.