A platonic dialogue I wrote with my professor – by Drishti Rai & Professor James Soderholm
JS: We have been discussing the problem of greed and the way a certain unregenerate rapacity has been underneath most of human history. One day I sketched for you a tiny farm that I imagine existed roughly 30,000 years ago somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. In my little reverie I pictured a family that cultivated its small plot of land and was perfectly content to subsist and not grow any more food than it needed to survive. They neither had nor wanted any surplus. They were content and, in my daydream, that contentment was as close to happiness as they could imagine. Given these circumstances, how and why did greed arise? If you skip ahead in history to the many land-wars between England and France, you see how–as Shakespeare beautifully put it–the two countries have looked ‘pale with envy’ at each other’s shores. What is the origin of that pale yet ferocious envy? And do you think there is any way of expunging it from human nature? But is greed natural?
DR: It is not a leap of the imagination to assume that, universal for all organisms, self-preservation is innate and essential for survival. Greed and whether it is natural however, is debatable, and a difficulty lies in drawing the line between the two. To extend the narrative of the subsisting family, it is likely that a time would come when perhaps they had another child, or there was a flood that destroyed their harvest or a drought that damaged their crops. Whatever the case, there arose a requirement for more resources than what they already had. This is not an infeasible scenario to consider. Hence, they had the choice to either suffer the shortfalls and their respective consequences, or to expand their plot of land. As rational beings, it is likely that they chose the latter in an act of self-preservation – but what if the additional land they chose to take belonged to a neighbouring family? Greed, being an elastic term, requires further distinction. Does self-preservation become greed when one’s gain becomes another’s loss? Human imagination, wonderment and curiosity allows contemplation, and having returned to a level of subsistence, the original family in question could indulge in further contemplation – the kind that, upon realising that by taking more land they could achieve a better life, evoked a dangerous concept: what if they took just a little bit more? They would be able to enjoy more security and the fear of a famine would diminish! Could empathy for the neighbouring family and respect for their property outweigh the prospect of greater security and the temptation of a better life? Why does such temptation even exist? Beyond security, seeking a better life and striving for more has become prevalent. I have alluded to greed as an extension of self-preservation, but perhaps, could it be that greed is a manifestation of the human compulsion to feel purpose in life, in the absence of faith in a higher being?
JS: I think ‘Does self-preservation become greed when one’s gain becomes another’s loss?’ is a well-formed, difficult question. To take a hard line on this, I would argue that knowingly disadvantaging your farming neighbour—or any neighbour—is precisely where greed kicks in. One’s motives may be relatively innocent or simply protective (bad harvest, must lay in more for next year), but the moment one’s tactics exploit in any way those also trying to scratch out an existence (or a subsistence) that is where greed gains a foothold. It then, almost inevitably, seems to grow from strength to strength until one becomes so prosperous that one begins to feel entitled to more and more property. Before you know it, our primitive farmer is a feudal lord, then a baron, then an earl and finally a king. Is there any way to halt or slow that narrative of increasing appetite? I don’t know why the temptation exists in the first place. A psychologist would insist on profound insecurities generated in childhood, I imagine. If you are consistently and warmly held by your mother, does that mean later in life you are less desperate to hold on to the things and lands around you? Is that too simple? Some people grow up as grasping people, while others in the same family do not. What might the economist say to the psychologist?
Greed is a puzzle I have been trying to solve for most of my life. I do think that greed—greed in all its unlovely forms—underlies almost every major problem on the planet. That is why I want someone to solve the problem of greed.
DR: Earlier, you spoke of contentment being as ‘close to happiness [as] could be imagined’ by the farmer’s family. Can one live a lifetime in a state of permanent contentment, neither advancing nor regressing? I’d like to argue that in reality, contentment and the Swedish proverbial ‘lagom är bäst’ is unsustainable, for contentment breeds idleness, and where there is idleness, boredom inevitably follows. Kierkegaard describes boredom as a sense of emptiness from the absence of meaning— perhaps an appetite is born in the wake of people grasping for meaning —a sense of purpose— rather than insecurities stemming from childhood, and when empathy takes a back seat, this appetite births temptation. I find it ironic that we take pride in empathy being a very ‘human’ attribute, considering how scarce in supply it appears. Surely, a world with an abundance of empathy would know no greed, only camaraderie. Instead, not only do we live in a world full of greed, but one that rewards it. You ask if there is any way to halt the narrative of increasing appetite. As it traces back to a lack or absence of empathy and a need for meaning and purpose, empathy’s centrality to morality first of all begs the question: is morality, and consequently, empathy, natural? If the answer is yes, where has it gone?
JS: Is your ‘contentment to existential boredom and meaningless’ narrative a bit of a slippery slope? Why are we so restive when it comes to contentment? I have decorated a few Swedish dinner tables and the lagom (‘just the right amount’) was—true to its definition—equally measured out, gently flowing in fact, with very little sense of J. Alfred Prufrock’s gloomily rueful ‘I have measure out my life in coffee spoons’. The virtue of moderation (the Greek ‘golden mean between extremes’) seems to avoid the grasping nature of greed we have been discussing. But these were the same Greeks, I hasten to add, who loved running off to conquer other lands, slaughtering those who had the audacity to protect their little farms. And the socialist Swedes, all sweetness and lagom, were once cheerfully marauding Vikings.
How can we intellectually grasp the problem of grasping, including—as you say—the need to grasp for meaning in a world where various Givens have vanished? But even when the Givens were writ large and people adored their gods and their metaphysical comforts, greed ran rampant, given the chance. But I keep coming back to the same shred of optimism: most people are not socio-pathologically greedy. It’s the one out of five who ruin everything. So, where do they come from and why are they making life hell for the rest of us?
DR: You raise a good point questioning my assumption that contentment inevitably leads to existential boredom and meaninglessness. If most people can indeed remain content with just the right amount, is it that the greedy (‘one out of five’) lack the ability to be content with moderation, or is that they fail to realise that moderation is a virtue, from which they can derive fulfilment? If it is the latter, then being raised in a capitalist society could be to blame. Greed is encouraged and rewarded, and consumerism conditions us to believe we should want – no, that we need – more. It has become the accepted norm.
Consider this: An alien discovers earth and observes a group of people playing Monopoly. The people play aggressively, competing with one another until ultimately, one player has accumulated all of the money and property whilst the others are left with nothing. The alien concludes that human nature is greed, for the winner could have easily shared equally between them all. The next day, the alien observes a group of people playing Minecraft. This time, the players work as a team, sharing resources for everyone to share. This is confusing: Is human nature then collaboration and altruism? When taking a step back from the micro and considering the macro, the alien sees that, today, people are still competing for money and resources. Profit and the invisible hand drive almost everything. The world of Minecraft must have been a fluke. But considering history, there were times when people did not compete for resources but rather shared them for the benefit of all: The Indus Valley civilisation never went to war and the Iroquois shared ownership of property.
All that can be concluded therefore, considering how contradictory this all seems, is that human nature does not exist. It appears to exist as an expression of the rules of the game you are playing. If you are a greedy person in Monopoly and an altruist in Minecraft, you are merely acting within the bounds of what is and is not permissible, or what is and is not incentivised. In today’s society, greed happens to be that which is incentivised and encouraged. That is why we have the graspers.
If we really want to change the apparent nature of humanity, then shouldn’t we then change the rules of the game we are playing?
JS: Changing the rules would no doubt help lessen degrees of greed in any given population, but if we could tweak human nature that would alter things dramatically. I don’t believe in an absolute human nature, so I wonder if people can be trained from birth to be less needy, and therefore less greedy later in life. Burn all the Monopoly games, for starters, and have only Minecraft on offer. But I often wonder if it’s a numbers game of another kind. That is, whenever a population grows beyond what we associate with a small village, say 200 people, then hierarchy kicks in and with it a sense of entitlement and invariably the first inclination to concentrate wealth or surplus in few hands. But before those bad habits begin, is it possible to have a village without greed, a collection of families for whom wealth is common and the desire to be grasping never occurs? Maybe it would help to get rid of any form of money. The love of money really does despoil all other loves. And before you know it, Marlow’s premonition of Kurtz has pin-point accuracy, in 1890, and to the present day if one considers the continuing ivory trade in the Congo.
I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning.
That rapacious devil still haunts the Congo. I wish I knew how to stamp it out. In my next career, I want to be a poacher-poacher and go after the devils shooting elephants for their tusks. But in this career I still want to find a way of putting the poachers out of business by making them less needy. How is that possible?
DR: ‘Before those bad habits begin, is it possible to have a village without greed, a collection of families for whom wealth is common and the desire to be grasping never occurs?’
Yes, it is possible, but like you said, when the population grows, its sustainability is in question. I read about an example in one of my favourite books: Robert Heilbroner’s ‘The Worldly Philosophers’. In 1800, the utopian socialist and reformer Robert Owen set up a ‘village of cooperation’ in Scotland called New Lanark. It became world-famous, attracting 20,000 guests including Tsar Nicholas of Russia, Prince John and Prince Maximilian of Austria. Here is an extract from the book:
What they came to see was the living proof that the squalor and depravity of industrial life were not the only and inevitable social arrangement. Here at New Lanark were neat rows of workers’ homes with two rooms in every house; here were streets with the garbage neatly piled up awaiting disposal instead of being strewn in filthy disarray. […] There were no children in the factories […] Furthermore, they were never punished; no one in fact was punished, […] discipline seemed to be wielded by benignity rather than fear. […] Owen advocated the formation of Villages of Cooperation in which eight hundred to twelve hundred souls would work together on farm and in factory to form a self-sustaining unit. The families were to live in houses grouped in parallelograms […] with each family in a private apartment but sharing common sitting rooms and reading rooms and kitchens. Children over the age of three were to be boarded separately so that they could be exposed to the kind of education that would best mold their characters for later life. […] In the distance, away from the living areas, would be a factory unit; in effect this would be a planned garden city, a kibbutz, a commune.
What is truly remarkable is that New Lanark proved to be highly profitable. Gains would run to 30% but it would be communal profit: the surplus would be divided between labour, capital and ability. Such ideas took some hold in the United States.
At one time there were over forty phalansteries in [the US], and if one groups together the Owenite communities and the religious movements of various sorts, there were at least one hundred and seventy-eight actual Utopian groups with from fifteen to nine hundred members each.
In 1824, Owen sold all of the wealth he made from New Lanark in order to build a bigger village of cooperation. He bought a tract of thirty thousand acres on the banks of the Wabash in Posey County, Indiana. However:
It could not and did not succeed. Owen had envisioned a utopia sprung full-blown into the world, and he was not prepared to wean one from the imperfect environment of the old society. There was no planning: eight hundred settlers poured in, helter-skelter, within a few weeks. There was not even elementary precaution against fraud. Owen was bilked by an associate who piled insult upon injury by setting up a whiskey distillery on land that he had unfairly taken. And since Owen was not there, rival communities sprang up: Macluria under one William McClure, and others under other dissidents. The pull of acquisitive habit was too strong for the bond of ideas; in retrospect it is only astonishing that the community managed to exist for as long as it did.
Lack of planning was a reason for the project’s downfall, but I believe the main issue was that the settlers were adults who had grown up in the world of Monopoly, not Minecraft. One point I find interesting is that you said that you ‘wonder if people can be trained from birth be less needy, and therefore less greedy later in life.’ I think that is precisely what Owen believed as he identified education for children as a driving factor in their future character. I would strongly agree with this sentiment. If you raise a child in a world of Minecraft and New Lanark, then I do believe such ‘utopian’ ideas can be sustainable. But is it, as you said, a numbers game? I believe scaling up adds emphasis, but a more significant factor is that people do not like change or unfamiliarity, so having been predisposed to the reality of the world – grasping and Monopoly – New Lanark could not be sustained. So, how can we change the mind-sets of people who have only ever known the world of grasping? How can we ‘un-ingrain’ it?
JS: If you can get a small population to join a village without greed, where ‘the pull of acquisitive habit’ is reduced to a weak force, then you are on the way to ‘un-ingraining’ the tendency to be needy and therefore greedy. But those joining the community must have the strength of will and commitment not to turn out to be the pigs in Animal Farm who, having created their revolution and overcome their human oppressors, in turn become greedy overlords in love with hierarchy and the spoils of revolution.
But are we now—impossibly, disastrously, dystopically—miles away from the idea of a commune or a proper commonwealth or a village without greed? Are these Owenian ideals even thinkable in a time of a ‘global village’ (an oxymoron par excellence) and its almost necessary apotheosis: globalisation? And does the financialising of industry so massively incentivise grasping and acquisition that there is no tamping it down again, far less eradicating it? Are not the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England sure signs that human greed has transmogrified yet again into a new, ingeniously Protean devil of rapacity, where the richest 1% control everything from mortgage rates to arms sales to the fate of countries helplessly believing in their currencies, their people, their borders and their autonomy?
To echo Tolstoy—‘what then must we do?’