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Posted on Wed 24 March 2021

Boris, ‘greed’ and the moral case for capitalism

I, for one, was not surprised by the Prime Minister’s remark to his parliamentary colleagues about greed fuelling the race to develop a vaccination for Coronavirus. I well remember some years ago, when he and I were both on the Any Questions panel, he said to me in an audible aside:

‘Bishop, greed is good isn’t it because it makes us rich?’

I replied quickly to say something like you would expect me to say no, and the reason is that it makes a few people rich but it impoverishes many. Greed also causes some to fall into debt and even crime, because of the desire to ‘get rich quick’.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is uniformly negative about greed. In the book of Jeremiah we are told that everyone is greedy for unjust gain and deals falsely with their neighbour (Jer 6:13). The Ten Commandments, similarly and famously, tell us not to covet (that is, be greedy for) what is our neighbour’s (Exodus20:17). The New Testament uses two different words for greed: philarguria, meaning ‘love of money’, described as the root of all evil ( 1 Tim 6:10) and pleonexia, meaning covetousness, which is called worshipping a false god (Col 3:5).

The seriousness of this critique of greed and the greedy led to it being listed as the second of the seven Deadly Sins by the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria (next to pride). This list was brought to the West by St John Cassian in the fourth century and has remained part of the furniture of Western moral thought ever since. In both classical and Christian thought, vices like greed are set against their opposite virtues. in the classical world, greed is set against the virtue of generosity; and, for the Christian, against that of charity, which is seen as the greatest of all virtues.

Greed makes us turn in on ourselves and makes us excessively self regarding rather than open to giving to and receiving from others. It results in the accumulation of resources with a few, regardless of need, and the impoverishment of many. As Mahatma Gandhi put it memorably: ‘There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed’ or as the Prophet Isaiah has said: ‘Woe to you who add house to house and field to field until there is no more room for any one else!’ (5:8).

For those who wish to defend enlightened and morally responsible capitalism as the most efficient way of creating wealth so it can be shared fairly, to associate it with greed is a massive ‘own goal’. Surely, such capitalism is not simply about increasing wealth, whatever the means? It must be also be about the most efficient and sustainable use of the earth’s and the nation’s resources.

It is, after all, the unbridled exploitation of the natural world which has led to the ecological crisis we are facing now and of which the Prime Minister seems well aware. Instead of the Biblical tradition of the stewardship of creation, we have had an unprincipled trampling upon what cannot be replaced by natural process. Far-sighted and responsible capitalism should also be about innovation so as to optimise the resources of capital and labour in producing goods of better and better quality. Merely increasing productivity without thought of quality and just reward for workers cannot be in the capitalist’s own long term interests.

It is true, of course, that business should produce the best return for those who have invested in it. But a good return for share holders has to be held alongside the need to share appropriately with others, whether these are workers in the enterprise, customers, civil society or the nation as a whole. The capitalists of old, who are remembered today, are not the unprincipled exploiters of people and raw materials, but responsible ones like the Cadburys or the Barclays. Even if some see their philanthropy as patronising and paternalistic, there is no questioning their sincerity in wishing to share their plenty with those for whom they had responsibility and with the less fortunate. Others, like the John Lewis partnership, shared, and still do, the benefits and responsibilities of business with their workers.

If we are ever to escape the all enveloping clutches of centralised state provision for every real or imagined need, there will have to be a proportionate growth in personal and corporate philanthropy for the community in which businesses are set, for their employees and for the diverse needs which the state is not able to meet.

What John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to which we owe so much of our social awareness, said to workers, ‘Spend a little, save a little, give a little’, seems also like good advice to business. It is the way of prudence (another classical and Christian virtue), of generosity and of caring for ourselves and our families.

Social and personal wellbeing will not arise from greed but from responsible and accountable enterprise, the hard work of employees, state of the art research, a strong community spirit and generosity towards the most deprived.

This article was first published in The Spectator on 24th March and can be accessed here.

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