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Greed and the Wheels of Progress

March 30, 1985

I have read with consternation, Wilbur K. Peck's letter (March 16), "Greed Is the Juice That Gets Things Going in the U.S."

The author praises greed because "greed is the grease that makes the wheels of progress turn in this civilized world of ours." It is greed, the author continues, that produces housing developments, windmills, research, etc., and without greed these things would not have taken place.

What the author is really saying is the following: Private vices are public virtues. And if we follow the author's view, the use of tobacco is not a bad thing; it gives work to thousands of people. And violence itself is not a negative thing because, without it, there would be no judges, no lawyers, no policemen. And we can go even further: Lust is not a destructive thing because, without it, there would be no marriages.

I want to congratulate the author. He has discovered a new law of civilization. The source of civilization is no longer religion but human greed. But the problem is that once one recognizes the social necessity of greed, violence, lust, these vices become morally legitimate, and we change human society into a jungle, a society in which greed replaces generosity; violence, compromise; lust, trust or love.

I personally think that man is by nature greedy, violent, lustful; but if these vices are unrestrained, we are headed for hell on earth.


Los Angeles

Peck extolled the virtues of greed, saying it "is the grease" that makes the wheels of progress turn in this civilized world of ours.

Peck errs in that he has taken "greed" to mean something other than what it does mean in fact, namely, "an excessive desire to acquire or possess, as wealth or power, beyond what one needs or deserves" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1982). The key word is "excessive" and my point is other than silly semantic hair-splitting.

I agreed with what I perceive to be the thrust of Peck's argument that "things get done under our (capitalist) system". But the reason why this is so to a greater extent than under other socio-economic structures is incentive, the expectation of reward, and the relative freedom to attain it. Be it physical (wealth) or emotional (power), "excess" reward is a byproduct, not the reward itself. So what? Who defines "excess"?

Peck wrote his comments in the context of tax shelter advantages accruing to individuals who could qualify and how some but not all of these actually benefit society. I think most people would agree that a tax advantage offered for installing solar heating in one's home is a societal good that benefits everyone from a number of perspectives. But in fact, most tax shelters are quite narrow and tend to benefit only those in society with enough power to have lobbied for their enactment. Hence, my point: greed is excess; and "excess" in this context of governmental taxation would mean tax shelters that by definition deny society tax money while not in any other way contributing to society's benefit.

In a broader context, greed being excess is an industrial plant spewing out sulfur dioxide in amounts great enough to recolor the sky. Greed being excess is a toxic waste dump in the backyard adjoining my own. Yes, and greed being excess is a next-door neighbor enjoying all 120 watts of his 120-watt stereo. Yet, theirs is private property; who am I, or for that matter, who is the government to tell them what to do or how to do it?

Who defines "excess," the essential element of greed? I submit that "excess" is automatically defined at the point where the freedom of attaining the incentive impinges on someone else. More simply, your freedom ends where mine begins and vice versa.

Greed is not the same as incentive. Greed "in this civilized world of ours" is to be condemned, incentive preserved, and the distinction understood.


Los Angeles

On a purely logical plane, Peck's reasoning extolling the virtues of greed seems somewhat akin to the devil's extolling the virtues of sin. Their motives may differ, but the end results are identical--social and political corruption, anarchy and, ultimately, total collapse of civilized society.

Obviously, Peck does not recall the hard lessons learned from our laissez faire period of economic development when the oil, railroad, packing, etc., trusts dominated and pillaged our society under the flag of corporate greed and the "free market."

Greed may indeed play a role in getting things going, but God help us if we continue to encourage it to play the primary role, as we now seem to be doing.


Rancho Palos Verdes

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