Charlie's Blog: Need Versus Greed


Need Versus Greed

And that no man overreach, nor circumvent his brother in business: because the Lord is the avenger of all these things, as we have told you before, and have testified.

I prefer the Douay-Rheims translation because it gives the proper Catholic understanding of Scripture. This is because of a truth I learned decades ago at a Protestant seminary. There is no translation without interpretation. If you read a Protestant Bible, you will get the Protestant translation. If you read a Catholic Bible, you will get the Catholic translation. This verse is one of those verses.

The King James Version translates this verse this way:

That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.

 The New King James translates the verse this way:

that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified.

 The New International Version translates the verse this way:

and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before.

All of these verses are similar, but they are not the same. The Protestant versions caution against defrauding someone. The Catholic version cautions against monopolistic behavior. You can see how the Protestant translations evolved in their interpretation. When you consider the Protestant and the Catholic attitudes towards business and commerce, you can see why they have different translations. It is the case of need versus greed.

Despite the claims of modernist heretics in the Church espousing liberation theology, Catholicism has always opposed communism. The right to own property is part of natural law. The commandment to not steal implies that one can own something. But Catholicism also opposes the monopolistic tendencies of those who go beyond owning something to owning everything.

The final end of material wealth is to meet material needs. Imagine if some company could lay claim to the air itself which is free and charge people a fee for breathing. This seems ludicrous, yet this is exactly what companies have done with water, land, petroleum, and other free things they did not create. It is so bad that they have made it illegal in some states to harvest rainwater. Then, when a business can't own a resource, they pollute the hell out of it. When you can't drink the water or breathe the air, this is a crime. Even the owner of the offending business should want to drink clean water and breathe clean air.

The problem we have today is that anyone who criticizes capitalism and business gets hit with the Marxist label. You can be a capitalist and still criticize capitalism. Everyone has the right to make a profit but not at the expense of his brother. Yet, this is precisely what many businesses do. And when they can't do it in one country that says enough, they move their operations overseas where they can get away with this dirty business.

There are limits to what you can own. Commies want you to own nothing. Dirty businesses want to own everything. Catholics believe you should own what you need in order to live.

A fellow once told me that he was trying to make a living not make a killing. That stuck with me. I believe in making a living. I don't believe in making a killing. I didn't really settle on this until after my conversion to Catholicism. The irony is that I have done better materially after making that switch from my libertarian mindset.

People who are extremely pro-capitalism will deride contentment as making one soft and lazy. Greed is good. It motivates and innovates and blah blah blah. Here is the Gordon Gekko speech from Wall Street:

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

This speech was based on an actual speech by Ivan Boesky. Both Gekko and Boesky would serve time for their crimes. Yet, their respective speeches would make Ayn Rand proud because they championed both capitalism and selfishness. Neither one of these two was content with what they had. They always wanted more.

Greed is not good. This is why it is listed in the seven deadly sins. The rapacious hunger for money and material things is one of the surest paths to poverty. The lack of contentment I see among friends and family members is what drives them to live paycheck to paycheck even when they make six figure salaries. They have to earn more which leads to them spending more requiring them to earn more. This creates a vicious cycle that has no end.

Companies engage in the same vicious cycle. They prosper by doing good business until the greed drives them to increase profits by doing dirty business. This is why you can't buy a decent can opener anymore because the company decided it was more profitable for them to stick it to the customers by making lower quality products. In the long run, customers turn away from that business to find what they need. I know I did.

Good business is good business. You can't run a good business on greed. That is a libertarian lie. This is why some of the best businesses belong to people who tend to be hippie types. I don't think these people are heroes necessarily, but they do eschew greed for the sake of other goals. Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia is a prominent example. Patagonia eschews greed and remains profitable. That is not supposed to happen, but it does.

Another quip I heard was this. "Pigs get fed while hogs get slaughtered." Basically, it is enough to be profitable. Going beyond this profitably involves increased risks and potential disaster. You see this with Facebook's failures with creating a metaverse. That was a dumb idea. At some point, you pay a dividend to your shareholders in concession to reality.

I see need as the driver of progress and not greed. Successful businesses satisfy needs. Unsuccessful businesses fail when they seek to satisfy their greed.

How much is enough? That is a hard question to answer. Needs are finite. Once present needs are met, you have to consider future needs. It is enough to eat today and to eat tomorrow. Beyond that, you are working to meet someone else's needs. This might be your family, your grandchildren, the poor, or what have you. Contentment naturally leads to generosity. Greed does not. Greed turns wants into needs and never finds satisfaction for itself.

I am a capitalist and will always be a capitalist. But I believe in clean business not dirty business. Businesses and individuals should focus on meeting needs not feeding greed. No business can last long without a profit, but profit is the byproduct of success. It is not success itself. A dirty business can be profitable for a season but not forever. Consequently, it is not successful in the same way that a bank robber or a lottery winner is not successful. Luck and theft are not winning strategies.

Good business takes a holistic view of things with an eye towards sustainability over the long haul. Quality and morality matter in business. I don't know any customer that wants to be robbed or deceived. Unfortunately, our culture today gives all the incentives to dirty business while punishing good business. This needs to change.