Columnists > Soul Food

Libertarian hubris

Greed is not good, and it undermines liberty

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

ABC's John Stossel is perhaps the best news correspondent on television. He understands markets better than almost all of his colleagues, and his reporting is always provocative, thoughtful, and entertaining.

His latest news special, "Greed," an hour-long ode to the love of money, aired Feb. 3 and will likely be rerun often. In "Greed," Stossel again demonstrates his economic acumen, but he perpetuates a mistake common among secular libertarians-a complete disregard for greed's negative consequences.

Stossel puts forward some important truths in his special. He makes the crucial point that wealth, far from being static, is something that can be created. No one is poor because rich people have a lot of money; the wealthy "got so rich by making the pie bigger for everyone." He also contends that rather than being oppressive, "capitalism is the big equalizer. Money doesn't care if you're black or white or green."

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The profit motive, Mr. Stossel understands, can lead people to create good things for others. He can buy a steak in New York, he notes, because ranchers in Iowa, workers in packing houses, people who make the meat's packaging, truck drivers who ship the meat, and numerous others work together to put forth a product Mr. Stossel will buy. None of these people "really care whether some TV correspondent gets his steak, yet they cooperate to make it happen, motivated by self-interest."

But Christians, even those of us who lean libertarian, must reject two conclusions: first, that the desire for a profit is the same thing as greed; and second, that greed, or the love of money, is good. People can make a profit by serving others; the motivation behind greed is simply to serve yourself. Scripture is adamant that greed is idolatry and a form of slavery to sin. God may use unregenerate people's greed to achieve some good things, but Christians, having been born again of the Spirit and freed from sin's hold, are to have different motivations.

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers teaches that Christians in the executive suite or on the factory floor can and should be as "sold out for Christ" as those in the pulpit or the mission field. In our work-as in our callings as family members, neighbors, citizens, etc.-we are to use the skills God has given us to glorify him and serve others first and foremost, with self-interest taking a back seat. The chief reason a Christian businessman should want to create a high-quality product that returns a profit is that doing so honors God.

When it comes to money-and sometimes Christians will become wealthy pursuing their callings-John Wesley was on firm scriptural ground when he advised: "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can." In other words, greed and the profit motive aren't the same thing. The latter is only sinful when the love of money is behind it. Christians should desire to earn money because of the good we can do with it, not because we love it.

Secular libertarians reject such biblical counsel, of course, but even they should have some second thoughts about promoting greed. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of things they consider evil. The same greed which they call good gives us tariffs (and other forms of corporate welfare), frivolous lawsuits, and the middle-class entitlement state, to name but a few examples. The great hubris of many secular libertarians is to think they can unleash this beast in the marketplace, label him good, and then somehow tame or enlighten him before he moves out of the marketplace and attacks liberty.

In the world as it really is, though, people who love money are not likely to care whether they are enriched by private voluntary transactions or by coercive government transfer payments. Should we really be surprised when people whose main goal is accumulating money use their vote or lobbying power to do just that?

What motivates some Silicon Valley firms to create great computer chips may also cause them to lobby for Sematech, a black hole for corporate welfare dollars. Those food and beverage companies that become motivated by greed are likely to lobby for expensive market-promotion subsidies. Some people in all walks of life work hard out of greed, but that very same greed makes desperately needed reforms of Medicare and Social Security politically impossible. The record is clear: When there is greed in the private marketplace, big government isn't far behind.

So to be faithful to our Lord, Christians must distinguish between seeking a profit and bowing to greed, and so should anyone else who loves liberty.

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