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The Role of Greed in a Capitalist Society
Much has been said about the role of greed in a capitalist, free market economy. Some believe that greed fuels the economy. Others say that it undermines the value system that drives the economy. Adam Smith said that, "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" (Smith, 1776: 26-27). This statement explains that it is the self-interest of individuals that causes people to trade. This trade pushes an economy in a forward progression, which creates a more profitable living situation for the individuals in the economy.
Yet Smith also stated that an individual could either pursue the study of wisdom and virtue or the acquisition of wealth and greatness. In this context, one individual may choose to follow riches, which would in turn create a confidence in trade and the economy. The confidence of this person would strengthen the economy of that country. The other person may choose to attain wisdom and virtues. This person is notably less concerned with securing financial wealth (Smith, 1759: 62). Does this then mean that their lack of concern with material gain will work against the economy?
It is my thesis that greed does not fuel the economy, but undermines the value system on which capitalism (according to Adam Smith) was built, and a good example of this today is child labor. I plan to argue that Smith’s case for pursuing self-interest only works in the context of a wealthy society. He understood that there was more to life than amassing wealth, but he did not consider the plight of those in abject poverty. Using Biblical principles, new theories on democratic capitalism, and real life examples I hope to describe how greed undermines capitalism and that the free market economy is driven by a good work ethic, delayed gratification and the virtues of individuals. These qualities can better provide the wealth of life that Smith describes in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Adam Smith’s first book and it was first published in 1759. He was appointed to be the Chair of Logic at Glasgow in 1752 and then moved to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1752. He was teaching subjects such as natural theology and ethics before moving into law and government. This book is a conglomerate of notes and lectures that he made in the department of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is indeed a very different text. Being a scholar on many levels, Smith was able to incorporate philosophy, history, government, and economics into his works. His works in economics were intended to add to the knowledge and understanding of the activity of man, in many contexts. He discussed the role of the state in the economy, as well as the importance of capital flows, the division of labor, and the consumer.
The United States, as the leading capitalist society in the world at the present time, has a responsibility as a leader to set an example for other developing countries. William Bennett, a former Cabinet member under Bush and Reagan states:
[t]he American republic has stood in support of, and been governed by, a clear proposition: there are things that matter more than gold. The United States, after all, was founded on ‘self-evident’ truths and on an appeal to the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ (Bennett, 1998: 34).
The success of the economy is important to the success of the "American experiment," but it is far from being everything. It is built upon the values system of the people. The economy is only as strong as their virtues.
According to Webster, self-interest is "regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others" or a "personal interest or advantage." This is the term that Adam Smith used in his reference to the butcher, brewer, and baker. One does not expect them to prepare food or drink for us because they want us to eat. They prepare the food because they know that we will pay them for it. He also refers to this as "self-love," which Webster defines as "the instinct or tendency to promote one’s own welfare or well-being" or "an excessive regard for one’s own advantage and interests," or "conceit; vanity." Smith’s intent was for the reader to understand the necessity of trade and division of labor in a society.
When dividing labor, people become connected through the market. This, of course, is the evolution of the capitalist state in modern times. The "self-interest" of Smith is sometimes defined as greed. Greed is defined by Webster as "excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions; avarice; covetousness." It is a driving force that causes individuals to consume goods from the market, to make more goods in order to sell them and to invest in that particular economy. Greed is a tool known to bolster the economy through the ambition it inspires within people.
Ambition is "an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as wealth or fame, and the willingness to strive for it" or "a desire for work or activity." Smith quotes Lord Rochfaucault as having said "Love is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love" (Smith, 1759: 57). Smith then goes on to say that "all other pleasures sicken and decay" because of the passion for either material wealth or public recognition. It causes people to forget that there are other things in life outside of the internal drive for more power, wealth, and fame.
In the Bible, Solomon reflects that "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income" (Ecclesiastes 5:10). This again shows man’s inherent desire to continue to attain more from life. No matter how much one obtains, it never seems to be enough because there is always more.
Implications of self-interest
The advantages of the greed of an individual are clear in a free market economy. This person is able to imagine himself with more, which is essential for trade. People need to want more of what they already have or want a good that they do not yet possess in order to increase trade. Smith said that
As it is by treaty, by barter, and by purchase, that we obtain from one another the greater part of those mutual good offices which we stand in need of, so it is this same trucking disposition which originally gives occasion to the division of labor (Smith, 1776: 27).
It is self-interest that encourages us to barter, purchase, and to make treaties. These are all good things that will help the economy to function better.
Charles Colson, a former Nixon staffer stated, "[e]ven Adam Smith, capitalism’s founder, did not present capitalism as a means of creating a just society. Instead, he presented it as a practical means of controlling self-interest – of providing a socially useful channel for an antisocial impulse" (Colson, 1997, 33). What Colson is pointing out here is that Smith focused on trade and the economy as separate from social activities. Smith never incorporates the individual’s value system or what goes into decisions made in the market place. He was basically initiating a way to harness greed into something with which to fuel our economy. He was not incorporating this harnessed greed into the value system of the people.
The problem lies in the question: What effect does greed have on others? That question leads us to another question. How much concern for others is necessary? Some say that the poor are irresponsible and deserve the life that they are living. This is how Smith portrays the ideas people had in regard to the poor when he says, "that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness" (Smith, 1759: 62). But even Adam Smith, in his quest to make what we now know as capitalism a profitable type of economy, stated that "poverty…is extremely unfavorable to the rearing of children" (Smith, 1776: 97). He saw that the poor, while they were able to reproduce, could not support their children. They did not make enough in wages to feed the children they had, let alone themselves. It may be considered contemptible that they are reproducing more impoverished with all of their children, and even less respectable that they cannot support the children they already have. Is Smith encouraging the children to work for themselves to fight starvation? Would that be in their own self-interest?
While it might be in their "self-interest," or more correctly, their "self-preservation" to work in order to prevent starvation, Smith is by no means encouraging children to work. When Smith said "The liberal reward of labor, by enabling them to provide better for their children," (Smith, 1776: 97) he took as given the nature that adults work and children are supported by the wages of the adults.
This issue is a hot topic because some corporations believe that they are entirely justified in the creation of industries using child employment. They are working in their own self-interest, by minimizing costs and maximizing profits. The corporation is economically justified. The other side of this argument is that the only other option for the children working these jobs is starvation. While the corporation is paying them mere pennies, at least they are not starving. They have jobs and now can pay for food to eat. They are focusing on the efficiency of the industry, and not the implications of that efficiency. It is business without a conscience.
According to a Department of Labor report, "[c]hild labor is simply the single most important source of child exploitation and child abuse in the world today" (Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable, 1997). The view of this agency is one that would bring the global elimination of the most exploitative forms of child labor, such as slavery, prostitution, and drug trafficking. It is easier to implement and enforce this type of legislated protection for the rights of children in a wealthy country, such as the United States, but it becomes a difficult problem that hinders economic and social activities in developing countries. They "often lack the political will and/or resources to implement actions that could significantly reduce the economic exploitation of children" (Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable, 1997). This explains why this topic is presently an important issue.
Greed in occupation choice
Adam Smith defines the desire to be like the rich and powerful as the "most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments" (Smith, 1759: 61). Wisdom and virtue are due both honor and respect from others and yet, in this desire to be respected, man has bestowed his respect upon the rich and his contempt upon the poor (Smith, 1759: 62). People desire to be known and respected. The Bible teaches that "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold" (Proverbs 22:1). Human nature desires respect. These qualities mean more to them than wealth. Yet, if wealth is a way to obtain esteem and respect, it may become the venue for it.
Wealth can become a pathway to fame. Those who are wealthy can live the life that most people can only dream of living. King Solomon, who is regarded by some as "the wisest man in history" and also as one of the wealthiest (relatively speaking), taught that "[w]ealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him" (Proverbs 19:4). People who long to be respected by others may choose an occupation simply for the riches it may bring them, or for the pleasures that come as a result of wealth.
The Bible also says, "[d]o not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle" (Proverbs 23:4-5). This may have been Smith’s point in dividing wisdom and virtue from wealth and riches. He could have been showing the difference between obtaining a large amount of money and acquiring the experiences and knowledge that make a man wise. A business can go bust, but wisdom lasts throughout one’s entire life.
So, some people may choose their occupations based on what that job will offer them both financially and emotionally. They want to be rich in order to find the respect and fame that are likely to follow it. But there are those that are not given the liberty to choose the direction their life will follow. The poor are likely to stay poor if not given an education to rise above their current economic position. Smith almost encourages this when he says:
[t]he wages paid to journeymen and servants of every kind must be such as may enable them, one with another, to continue the race of journeymen and servants, according as the increasing and diminishing, or stationary demand of the society may happen to require (Smith, 1776: 98).
This may show that Smith believed there was a particular class whose role it was to support everyone else in their quest for respect, either through the road to material wealth or the road to wisdom and virtue. They are not given occupational choice. Their self-interest is ignored. It is only those who are at a certain economic level that have the luxury of time to consider a change in occupation.
According to Webster’s College Dictionary, virtue is defined as "conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; moral excellence; rectitude." According to the Bible, in II Peter 1:5, virtue is defined as goodness when Peter writes that "[f]or this every reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge." He is trying to teach others that it is not enough just to have faith in Christ to live the life Christians are called to live. They had to add goodness or virtue to it. This still was not enough, because he went on to say:
and to knowledge, [add] self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (II Peter 1:6-8)
In this passage, Peter was demonstrating the levels of commitment an individual should apply to the true Christian life. It began with faith and then moved straight into goodness, or virtue.
Adam Smith defines virtue when discussing the difference between propriety and admirable virtuosity. When describing the virtuous man, Smith states that
it [virtue] may still manifest an effort of generosity and magnanimity of which the greater part of men are incapable; and though it fails of absolute perfection, it may be a much nearer approximation towards perfection, that what, upon such trying occasions, is commonly either to be found or to be expected (Smith, 1759: 26).
He is speaking of the difference between common courtesy and nobility of character. Some people have proper manners and can "look the part" of a moral and virtuous being. Others, when put through the tests of life, prove themselves to be made of a deeper and richer substance of character. They can weather the storms of life with dignity. He also wrote of the "Character of virtue" as how "it may affect his own happiness; and secondly, as it may affect that of other people" (Smith, 1759: 212). This is how he viewed virtue. It is very similar to the teachings of Solomon who wrote "Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel" (Proverbs 20:15). Smith understood the value of wisdom and virtuous living.
Can virtue be good for the economy?
I think that most people would agree that society benefits from a strong value system and from a deep sense of virtue in the people within the society. Good people make up good neighborhoods in good cities in a good country. But how can the virtues of a group of individuals (a society) enhance their economy?
Without respect for laws and self-government, it never would have worked. Smith denotes one of the main virtues people possess to be the virtue of "self-government." He includes it as "The soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues…are founded upon the one: the great, the awful and respectable, the virtues of self-denial, of self-government…and the propriety of our own conduct (Smith, 1759: 24)." This statement shows his belief in the importance of three different kinds of virtues. All of the virtues require work on the part of the individual. It is not easy to deny oneself, to govern oneself or to conduct oneself in a proper manner. That is what makes the path to follow virtues more difficult than other paths.
People seem to consider "values" as personal and not an important societal issue. The present leader of the "free world" reminds himself that the only important issue is "the economy, stupid." At this point in time, the center of the American value system is the economy. Charles Colson has defined four factors, based on a moral value system, that lead to a thriving economy. The first is that people need to be willing to work hard. This factor is based on self-motivation and self-sacrifice, both virtuous qualities. The second factor is that people need to be willing to honor contracts, which requires honesty on both ends of the contract. Honesty is vital in many trading situations that involve an asymmetry of information. Honesty protects banks from bad loans and investors from bad investments. It affects many industries. The third factor is that people need to invest time and effort into something in order to gain in the future. This requires both self-discipline and delayed gratification. Finally, the fourth factor is a need for people to cooperate with their co-workers, which implies mutual respect and kindness. (Colson, 1993: 123-124)
In the context of greed, the third of these four factors is probably the most important to consider. For instance, in the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, people were being greedy by investing money that was not their own. This is the economic concept known as moral hazard. Moral hazard is the risk that one party to a transaction will engage in behavior that is undesirable from the other party’s point of view. It is created by the asymmetry of information between the two parties. One party has more information about himself than the other party does. It lowers the probability that one party will repay the loan made by the other party. Because the money was not theirs, the risk of a bad investment was spread out over all of the people investing in their financial institution. The decrease in risk only fed the curiosity and greed within the savings and loan industry, causing the problem to escalate. In this situation, self-control would have been in everyone’s best interest. The investors would not have lost their money and the savings and loan institutions would not have closed.
Delayed gratification is also an important value in a capitalist society. An investor fronts the money in its present value, hoping that his investment will bring him a gain in the future. He is giving up the use of the money in the present in order to have more in the future. He is delaying his present desires in order to obtain a future gain. Capitalism rests in this ideal. Michael Novak, who has defined "democratic capitalism," has this to say:
Only a culture in which a majority of citizens is capable of deferred gratification, of a sense of responsibility, and of a capacity for saving and wise investment, can support…a capitalist economic system. By concentrating upon fulfilling desires, democratic capitalism nourishes a hedonism which undermines the self-denying spirit (Novak, 1978: 13).
Capitalism is not capable of surviving in the midst of radical selfishness, nor in an environment of immediate gratification. Since greed is defined as selfishness, logic only dictates that capitalism cannot support greed. Or rather, greed cannot, by itself, keep capitalism afloat.
Novak argues that at first, capitalism and the free market economy could harness a person’s self-interests for social purposes. This, however, keeps the system on an immoral level, where the selfishness of the individual is exalted (Novak. 1978: 13). An economy cannot survive on selfish ambition alone. The people must be willing to lay hedonism aside in the midst of their self-interests in order to create a future gain for themselves (what they earn from saving), and to create an investment for someone else (the money loaned because of their willingness to save). In an interview with Ben Wattenberg about his new book, Michael Novak said
I just want to say for the system’s sake, capitalism requires a lot of people willing to sacrifice today for tomorrow, a tomorrow they may not see, but their children will see. And so, it’s really not compatible with the hedonistic principle. Those are at war with one another (Novak, 1996).
Self-sacrifice is essential to support this type of economic system.
How else does saving relate to virtue? When a person saves, they trust the institution in which they store their money to not invest their money poorly. When money is lent to a borrower, the financial institution is taking the risk of trusting this firm or household to pay back the loan and not default so that they will be able to return the money to the original saver. There are elements of honesty, trustworthiness, faithfulness, integrity, and self-control. These virtues are essential to the cycle of transactions taking place in the financial realm. If these virtues flourish, it indeed does feed the economy.
The virtues of generosity and benevolence may also help the economy. If people are willing to give of their time, wisdom, and money to those less fortunate than they are, it could have a positive impact on the status of the poor. In educating the lower classes, they are given more equality of opportunity in the economy. They have more options in their careers and a higher chance of being respected by others. Their creativity can be encouraged, which in the long run will add to the economy as a whole. Education in this sense, would not be a reward for the indolence of the lower classes. It would be a helping hand. Welfare may have the tendency to perpetuate poverty, but education is really an improvement of the society for all.
Virtue in Occupational Choice
An occupation may stem from the desire for fame, wealth, or power, but it could also be part of an individual’s "calling" in life. Although most people consider occupations such as medical professions and priesthood to be "callings," businessmen can also be "called" into business. People can perform their jobs without being greedy and still work to fuel the economy. The term "self interest" that Smith uses in The Wealth of Nations can mean something other than greed. It can be his way of describing that in choosing an occupation, a person may find something he is good at performing or something he enjoys. His self-interest may be to bake bread because he knows how to do it better than anyone else. He may have the muscle tone to knead the dough or the flour supply to make bread. Smith describes natural talents as being acquired through "habit, custom, and education" more than from nature (Smith, 1776: 29). Regardless, through either natural talent or education and habit, there is more to consider here than just the job someone has. Why did he take that job rather than another one?
To define how one is being "called" into business, there are a few things to be considered. One is that it might be something he really wants to do. The second is that he has a talent in that area. He is good at doing this. Third is that he enjoys doing what he wants to do or what he is good at. It is not difficult for him to motivate himself to perform this task (Novak, 1996). Just taking these three things into consideration, it is easy to see how hard it is for individuals to find their calling. Yet some may consider themselves called to be businessmen, bankers, stockbrokers, or even chief executive officers. Are they being greedy by choosing these occupations? Not necessarily.
The online Mail & Guardian magazine has an article about poverty forcing children into labor. They did not choose their jobs because of greed or because of virtue. They chose to work in order to feed their families. In an article about child labor in South Africa, a young girl (of an unknown age, possibly 16) named Zodwa spoke of the reasons why she has been employed for the last eight years. She tells the story
My mother stopped working after suffering a stroke many years ago. I had to work so that we could all survive. I would not say I am happy with my pay, but it is much better than what I used to earn before I came here (Child Labor in South Africa, 1997).
She did not choose to work in this job because of the future respect it would bring her. This job was taken to feed her family. She did not receive an education while she was working and therefore does not have the options that other children her age have. Choice is a luxury. This is a point that is not addressed by Smith and is only recently gaining attention from international organizations. Smith cannot be blamed for not addressing this issue the way people are looking at it today. In his time, it was a radical idea that an individual, of any class, could choose a career. But the times have changed, and today, people have more occupation choice and mobility, at least in developed nations, than ever before in history.
Occupation choice is ultimately up to the individual. It may be made because of the social status attached with that career or because of the gratifying nature of the work involved. It might be a decision to avoid starvation. It could be a decision made to please someone else (i.e.: parents, spouses, and peers). Because the decision is made by the individual, the choices are tested by the values that person holds. The values shape the individual’s decision and that decision will help to shape the society.
What is good for the economy?
It would seem on the surface that greed, ambition, and wealth would be good for the economy. Greed, however, encourages hedonism and instant gratification, which is not good for the economy, except in a consumer sense. Consumerism is the belief that consumption is the basis for the economy, and that consuming a great deal of goods is good for the economy. It is good because it stimulates economic activity, but it could be possible that economic activity is not the answer to everyone’s problems.
According to Smith, "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production" (Smith, 1776: 660). This statement was in the context of an argument for consideration of the consumer in industry. It is true that the only reason one should produce is for the consumption of what has been produced. If consumption increases, production will have to increase to meet the demands of the consumers. This is simple economics. Does increased consumption prove that life is more livable for people? No. Consuming goods is not the root of happiness. It is true that pleasures can be bought through wealth, but joy can come from a plethora of devices. Love can make life more livable and no amount of money can buy love. Solomon said "Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife" (Proverbs 17:1). Money is necessary to buy goods. Goods can bring pleasure into a person’s life. Joy, peace, love, and grace are all things that can exist outside of wealth. Therefore, increased consumption is not the answer to a more livable life.
The freedom to trade goods increases the supply and choice of produced goods. This increase will potentially increase consumption. If someone is free to trade his goods with someone else, they will both benefit from the trade. That is the idea, anyway. Smith argued that "Perfect freedom of trade would even be the most effectual expedient for supplying them [consumers], in due time, with all the artificers, manufacturers and merchants, whom they wanted at home" (Smith, 1776: 670). He completely favors of the freedom of trade for the potential to supply the demand of every consumer in the market.
Strong Work Ethic
Hard work fuels the economy. What drives people to work hard? It varies from person to person, but can stem from greed, love, a specific calling, or a variety of other things. Smith speaks of owning property as encouragement to improve the quality of that property (Smith, 1776: 423). Having a vested interest in something will obviously increase the intensity of work a person puts into working for that property. He will work hard to further his own interests in the property.
This takes the argument back to the self-interest of the individual. He is working on his own property or in his own company. If he is holding stock in a company, he will be more interested in the performance of that business. It might not be greed that motivates the strong work ethic, but the strong work ethic definitely helps the economy and the individual.
What is good for the individual?
Money is not the root of all evil. The Bible says
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (I Timothy 6:6-10, emphasis added)
Money is necessary for buying the goods we need for daily life. Money is the means of exchange and it is a store of value. It is not a basis for the worth of a person. It is a very important part of our lives. The problem with wealth comes when an individual begins to love money. The "temptation" could be to exploit workers or use children in factories because children are not being educated and are therefore available for work. The "trap" could be a violation of national and international concessions. Some people may have "harmful desires," such as employing children, in order to gain a higher profit. Child labor is the pursuit of money to the detriment of human life. Money is necessary to live, but the pursuit of basic goods, such as food and clothing are not what "plunges men into ruin and destruction." It is the excess that causes men to "pierce themselves with many griefs."
Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount "[n]o one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24). He understood the problems of greed. He knew that in trying to attain wealth, a person could fall into many temptations and traps.
In pursuing money above all else, one must turn his back on God, according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Those who follow the teachings of Jesus do so most likely for "the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue." Smith saw the difference between pursuing wisdom and wealth, which is clearly outlined within the contexts of the Bible.
Virtue and Wisdom
It is human nature to define oneself by one’s personal value system. One who values money over all else is considered by others to be "greedy." One who devotes one’s spare time in doing good deeds is considered to be "charitable." As humans, we are defined by our values. There is a gray area between charitable and greedy. Most people fit somewhere on a spectrum with one extreme being "greed" and the other extreme being "charity." We can possess a combination of the two in various manners.
If virtue is goodness, or the level of good within a person, it is a measure we use on others. A person can be referred to as a "virtuous" person if they have many of the "good" qualities. Others respect a person with virtue simply for the self-discipline it takes to become a virtuous person. Since we are all human, we know the temptations that follow us on a daily basis. There are many vices calling our attention. It is the person who has the ability to avoid these temptations and vices that is considered to be a virtuous person. Their integrity has come from self-denial and restraint that not everyone has. This brings them respect from others. Respect is something Adam Smith says all humans look to achieve. Therefore, under these conditions, virtue is good for the individual.
Wisdom takes a good amount of work to achieve. If wisdom can be defined as knowledge applied, the first step in gaining wisdom is to obtain a vast amount of knowledge. Then, one has to apply that knowledge through experience in order to attain wisdom. It is the combination of knowledge and experience. Those who are considered wise have not accomplished this in an easy manner. It requires work and a deep level of understanding in order to become wise. Yet one who is considered to be wise holds the reverence of those around him. It is respectable to understand situations on a deeper level. Not everyone can be wise, and yet the individual who is wise has the respect and honor of those who are not at that level. Since wisdom brings esteem to an individual, wisdom is good.
A steward is a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs or a person in charge of running the household of another. Stewardship is the act of being a steward for someone else. In Psalm 24:1, one learns that "The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." This is a fundamental part of Christianity and Judaism because it shows God’s ownership of this planet. Why is this important?
In following the Judeo-Christian basis for stewardship, God created the earth and all that is in it, including humans. When God created humans, he told them "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Genesis 1:28). He gave mankind an obligation to take care of the planet, including the plants, animals, other humans and everything he had created. This is the point in which God made mankind the stewards of this planet.
In this context, those following the Judeo-Christian ethic believe themselves to be the stewards of God’s creation. In being a steward of a God that they believe is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, they have a higher incentive to be good stewards with what God has given them. They believe that God has given them a free will to decide how to govern what he has given to them, and yet he is constantly monitoring them in their stewardship.
In the Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics in January, 1990, the following statement was released:
Economic production results from the stewardship of the earth which God assigned to humanity, while materialism, injustice, and greed are in fundamental conflict with the teaching of the whole Scripture, there is nothing in Christian faith that suggests that the production of new goods and services is undesirable (Schlossberg, et al, 1994: 14).
To increase wealth or the quality of what God has given man to govern is exactly what He is instructing them to do. Yet God also instructs them not to strive for the material wealth itself, but for Him who gives them all the blessings of life. This is why Jesus taught "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:20). He taught that people should not worry about the material things which will all be destroyed in the end, but to worry about how God will judge their performance here on Earth.
Adam Smith discussed how commerce in small towns contributed to the well-being of the national economy. In writing about the care put into work in smaller towns, Smith said
A small proprietor, however, who knows every part of his little territory, who views it with all the affection which property, especially small property, naturally inspires, and who upon that account takes pleasure not only in cultivating but in adorning it, is generally of all improvers the most industrious, the most intelligent, and the most successful (Smith, 1776: 423, emphasis added).
Smith’s point illustrates clearly what the Bible instructs mankind to perform. Smith is not speaking of this quality as a God-given trait, but the fact that man does naturally want to improve his property shows this Biblical principle to be true, at least in Smith’s time.
Presently, there are problems with the environment, such as endangered species, extinction, depletion of natural resources, pollution and global warming. There are problems in violence, child abuse, slavery, child labor, ethnic cleansing, and molestation. Obviously, not everyone understands their full purpose on this planet. If they do understand their full purpose, then their behavior proves that they are not living it. "Neglect of the poor often flows from greed" (Schlossberg, et al, 1994: 21). Humans are the most intelligent species and therefore have an obligation to be good stewards of the other living creatures on the planet. These problems that our world faces are not God’s will in action in our lives, but the rebellion of man from his initial God-given purpose. These problems cannot be solved without understanding the stewardship of humans on Earth.
What motivates other than greed?
According to Smith, "We desire both to be respectable and to be respected" (Smith, 1759: 62). This desire for respect and esteem can motivate some to work. People may choose their occupations based on the level of respect others have for people in that field. Others choose to follow material wealth because of the admiration another person will have for them because of their wealth. Some choose to follow what they consider to be their "calling" in life.
According to the Bible, humans are stewards of what God has given to them and He is watching them as they take care of what He has given them. In this setting, people are motivated by their desire to please God with their lives. It is not greed or selfish ambition that drives them to increase the quantity or the quality of something, but it is a desire to do a good job with what God has given them. That way, at the end of their lives, they will be able, like Paul, to say "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Timothy 4:7). In living the life of a steward, one has the knowledge at the end of life that they have lived appropriately. There is a sense of completion and satisfaction in this lifestyle that could motivate people to work and trade.
Some people are, in fact, motivated by greed. They are the ones who would rather use the labor of a child in a hazardous work site than give that child an education that could possibly help him to create a way to perform that job in a cheaper, less dangerous way. Education is for the good of all. It is something that can enhance society and in turn, enhance the life of the individuals in that society. Greed is not even for the good of an individual. A greedy person is not even respected by others, simply because of their greed. It does not necessarily bring them wealth that will last them a lifetime. The economy can actually suffer from the hedonism of greedy individuals.
Smith explores the extent to which greed is harmful only in the context of his own lifestyle. He did not deem it necessary to consider those less fortunate than he was. Some of his statements are closely linked to the Judeo-Christian ethic spelled out in the Bible, but his lack of consideration for the poor is evident in both works. I have found that those living in poverty do not have the privilege of choosing their occupation. Yet, those who have the means may choose between the path that leads to material wealth and the path that leads to wisdom. I am sure there are places where these two paths meet, but for the most part, they are separate and distinct. The decision lies ultimately in the individual and that decision will be based on his/her set of values or moral standards.
Greed undermines the value system of individuals. It is this value system that drives them to work harder. When individuals work harder, the economy thrives. In this sense, what is good for the economy is also good for the individual.
Greed fuels consumption. Consumption stimulates the economy because of the trade involved in consumption. Therefore, greed can in fact stimulate the economy. This does not mean, however, that greed in its extreme form is good for the economy. Greed encourages hedonism, which is the antithesis of delayed gratification. Delayed gratification is what drives investment. Therefore, greed can have a negative impact on investment, which could hurt the economy.
Greed also neglects the world in which we live. As humans, we have a responsibility to care for the environment and other human beings. Greed focuses only on the self and ignores poverty, or often perpetrates the plight of the poor. This leads to an exploitation of the poor in order to gain more for the greedy person. Excessive greed ignores future gains in the name of future profits. Virtue is important because it drives people to the values that will enhance the economy on both the domestic and international level. Policy makers need to continue to set the United States as a role model. This country has well established laws concerning child labor, as well as education. Leaders need to focus now on fighting for child labor restrictions through international organizations and trade agreements to encourage future gains in other countries by increasing virtue and economic prosperity worldwide. Trade restrictions should be imposed on countries from which substantiated child labor violations have been reported.