It’s not often that I disagree with Walter Williams, but I did this week. Or, at least I disagree with the title of his column, I Love Greed. Though, I will give him some wiggle room. Column authors don’t always come up with the titles for their pieces.
I think a better title is I Love Capitalism.
In the column, he explains Adam Smith’s observation that capitalism directs greed (or self-interest) to encourage humans to serve their fellow man. I like his example (emphasis added):
This winter, Texas ranchers may have to fight the cold of night, perhaps blizzards, to run down, feed and care for stray cattle. They make the personal sacrifice of caring for their animals to ensure that New Yorkers can enjoy beef. Last summer, Idaho potato farmers toiled in blazing sun, in dust and dirt, and maybe being bitten by insects to ensure that New Yorkers had potatoes to go with their beef.
Here’s my question: Do you think that Texas ranchers and Idaho potato farmers make these personal sacrifices because they love or care about the well-being of New Yorkers? The fact is whether they like New Yorkers or not, they make sure that New Yorkers are supplied with beef and potatoes every day of the week. Why? It’s because ranchers and farmers want more for themselves. In a free market system, in order for one to get more for himself, he must serve his fellow man. This is precisely what Adam Smith, the father of economics, meant when he said in his classic “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776), “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.” By the way, how much beef and potatoes do you think New Yorkers would enjoy if it all depended upon the politically correct notions of human love and kindness?
I like that last question. Adam Smith wrote it this way:
We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.
When I read that passage from Adam Smith for the first time, it caused me to see the world differently.
Before that I had not seen as clearly the motivation of all those who supply me with the goods and services that I demand and how well those motivations work.
But, back to the title of Williams’ column. Later Williams writes:
Free market capitalism is relatively new in human history. Prior to the rise of capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving one’s fellow man.
That looting, plundering and enslaving was driven by greed also. What’s there to love about that? Absolutely nothing. Sorry Walter.
But, there’s a lot to love about a system that directs that greed away from looting, plundering and enslaving and channels it to serving our fellow man.
Greed and self-interest exists. This is human nature. I believe coming to grips with this fact moved me along my political path from neo to classical liberal.
Many people are not willing to recognize this fact of human. They hold romantic hope that human nature can somehow be different because they feel it should be.
And such people often seem oblivious that their very own behavior is guided by self-interest and does not often live up to the romantic hope they hold for everyone else.