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An idea that Rush Limbaugh put forth on his program a few days ago set me thinking. The question Limbaugh asked was which has been a greater force for good in the world, greed or charity?
That’s a particularly timely question. One of my favorite pieces of literature is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. You know the story. A mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge hoarded money while turning a blind eye to the human want that confronted him everywhere on the 19th century streets of London. In the Christmas season, when, to quote the story, “want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices,” Scrooge was having none of it.
Of course, as we know, Scrooge was ultimately redeemed by the visitations of the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. Scrooge’s miserly old heart was touched, and he became every bit as charitable after his enlightenment as he had been cruel and stingy before.
From the uplifting story of “A Christmas Carol”, you might reasonably conclude that charity has done more good in the world than has greed.
But let’s take a closer look.
First we need some definition. Webster defines greed as, “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.” By that definition, greed is not such a good thing.
But the definition of greed has been corrupted and that corrupt definition animates our politics and policy discussions. For many, particularly those on the left, greed is defined as trying to do well for oneself.
We are endlessly subjected to the president and his followers railing against corporations and small business owners and investors, calling them greedy simply for wanting to succeed and in so doing, make a lot of money.
But that isn’t greed. It’s capitalism – an economic model that has done more to lift humans out of poverty than any other economic system ever tried.
Charities, to which most of us give, are always needing more. To whom do they go? I have now served as president of two non-profit boards. When we needed money, we didn’t go to the poor. We sought out the wealthy.
I don’t know what Scrooge did to become wealthy. But absent that wealth, his ability to help the family of his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchett, and his ability to alleviate the misery on the streets around his home in London, would not have existed.
Scrooge’s success in business is what enabled his charity.
What liberals denigrate as “greed” is in fact what has made poverty the exception that it is in the America of today as opposed to the rule that it was in the England of Charles Dickens.
As Adam Smith said, “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 self-interest.”
Self interest, despite what liberals say, is not greed. The freedom to pursue self interest is what has lifted countless millions from the grinding hopelessness of poverty while concurrently enabling charity on an industrial scale.
Charity is good. But for all that is good about charity in the end it can feed only a few.
Capitalism, even if you call it greed, feeds everyone.