Greed is not good

In Greed We Trust” by Ed Suominen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ever wondered what makes the mega-rich so greedy for more; or how already powerful people feel entitled to inflict damage on other people? There is probably potential for greed in us all, but it seems paradoxical that the worst proponents should be those with most; and that these can have such impact on the lives of those less greedy.

There have always been those for whom the common good is of little interest and who see their aim as self-enrichment even at the expense of others. Because wealth clothes its owners with a degree of immunity from the insecurities affecting most, within “self-enrichment” we can include power, the great aphrodisiac. Such self-interest can lead to the trampling of the interests of others, of “little people” who do not compute in the world of the powerful. The fact that money is finite means that its accrual by some deprives others. The fact that societies have evolved with institutions intended to even out disparities in education, health and opportunity merely stimulates the rich to weaken them or take them over for gain.

Why do the rich always want more?

Do self-styled philanthropists like Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder; Elon Musk, who has just bought Twitter; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates pay the taxes states demand as the basis for redistribution? Or do they in fact spend some of their petty cash on the very best accountants specifically to minimise the amount of tax they pay? Why should they, rather than those elected to do so, decide on how much should be shared with what causes? Why do these who are rich beyond most people’s wildest dreams always want more? Can greed be so satisfying that it trumps [see what I did there?] all other demonstrations of humanity and becomes an addiction? Some years ago, it was found that in the UK income of above £50kpa added nothing to the potential for happiness of the individual. Those who seek much more must be looking for more than just happiness.

Some mega-rich do give a great deal to worthy causes, though it is worth noting that much of their wealth would not exist without the toil of others less rewarded; without impact on the lives of others; and without less altruistic motivations.

Ego and immortality

Do philanthropists like Sackler or Sainsbury hide their munificence behind anonymity? Oh no. They have, like many others, chosen which institutions to support which then bear their name. They have decided what use of their wealth would make them look best, gratify their personal inclinations and immortalise their names, like modern pharaohs. Ego and immortality, these are what substitute for happiness in the Midas world.

Political power can oil the wheels of wealth-creation and works for the ego too. Why did Boris Johnson transition from journalism to politics? “They do not erect statues to journalists”, he is believed to have said, in a rare moment of honesty. Has not his ego driven the whittling away of democratic obstacles to his self-aggrandisement? Has not Murdoch deliberately stirred up chaos in the institutions he would see destroyed, the EU and liberal democracy? Does Putin act for the common good of his people or for his ego and legacies? It is surely Putin’s ego which has led to the destruction of the lives and homes of countless decent human beings in Ukraine.

A war started by ego

I never thought that in my lifetime I would see a land war in Europe, gratuitously started by ego. Since the UK joined the Common Market, it seemed inconceivable to me that this country might voluntarily exclude itself from the club of European nations, manipulated by those with the means to do so. It has always been unconscionable to me that this long-established democracy would allow destruction of democratic norms by its own government. And yet, here we are, led by a self-serving clique. One might lazily think that these things simply happened; as if fate brought them upon us; as if they were inevitable. This is surely not the case. Power and money are at work.

Wealth and power seem to generate a sense of entitlement in their holders to eschew the norms of society and render them accountable to nobody. In almost every case, the vainglorious needs of a few, leads to the detriment of many.

Whatever psychological factors persuade them that this is OK must be left to others to explain, but perhaps greed and the love of money really is at the root of evil.

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