Economics 101 & Public Square

Does Capitalism Foster Greed?

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Editor’s Note: In his essay, “A Christian Critique of Capitalism: Is Capitalism Based on Greed?” (IFWE’s new book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism), IFWE visiting scholar David Kotter takes on three important questions for Christians related to capitalism, self-interest, and greed. In the excerpt below, he answers the question, “does capitalism foster greed?” David Kotter’s article has been modified for blog format.

It seems plausible that increasing wealth in a society seems also to inflame the desires to have even more. For example, if someone were to find a wallet on the sidewalk with twenty dollars and a driver’s license, a good conscience probably would lead to contacting the owner to return the lost item. On the other hand, finding a similar wallet with $20,000 likely would present a burning temptation to discard the license and keep the cash.

Watching commercials on television seems to awaken a desire to own more goods. In his book on deadly sins, Tony Campolo declared,

Our society has built its economy on the production of things that people are conditioned to want, but do not really need…We buy these things because we have been manipulated into wanting them through advertising and peer pressure.

This claims that advertising goes beyond simply informing consumers about the usefulness and availability of products to also creating and feeding desires.

Even so, the Bible explains that,

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13, ESV).

This makes it clear that giving into a temptation of greed or covetousness is a personal choice independent of the size of the temptation. God faithfully provides a way out of every such situation.

This example also holds true of being manipulated by advertising to make greedy choices. Since greed is sinful, this promise from God assures believers that there is always a way to avoid succumbing to greed, even as society increasingly imitates the Vanity Fair of Pilgrim’s Progress.

This demonstrates the importance of understanding the direction of causality between greed and riches.

Where Does Greed Come From?

The Bible is clear that greed begins in the heart, not in the external availability of material goods. Jesus declared that it’s not what comes from the outside that causes problems, such as advertising bombardments or the multiplication of consumer merchandise. He taught,

What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:20–22, NIV—italics added).

In the midst of a list of sins like adultery and murder, Jesus prominently includes greed to show the seriousness of this offense against God.

From this biblical perspective, it’s even clear that marketing that goes beyond providing simple information does not directly cause greed, but rather appeals to greedy desires that already exist in sinful hearts. These sinful desires will become attached to whatever gizmo or bauble is advertised as bringing satisfaction.

Throughout human history, people have desired to be attractive, appreciated, powerful, and happy, and new products consistently appeal to these basic desires. Though cultures in different places have defined attractiveness differently, marketers consistently appeal to this foundational and universal desire.

This is illustrated in the insightful Frontline documentary, “The Merchants of Cool,” which documents how advertisers closely study teen culture. Such advertising can be effective only if it appeals to desires which are already present in the hearts of the target audience.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when Christian films recently began to earn millions at the box office, Hollywood responded to this desire by producing more films with spiritual themes. This represents another illustration of how marketers often follow desires, rather than create them.

James highlights the potential strength of such heart desires in saying,

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (James 4:2, ESV).

Along these lines, Tony Campolo correctly describes a greedy person as one who is “willing to reject biblical principles of living in order to buy the consumer goods which the media prescribes as essential for the ‘good life.’” Preexisting greedy desires in sinful hearts drive people to violate other biblical principles or disregard the interests of others in the search for satisfaction.

Jesus Christ, the Only Antidote to Greed

Yet not every consumer in a market economy is necessarily greedy, and many purchase essential items to fulfill legitimate needs. The difference is that hearts transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ can begin to turn away from the deceitfulness of riches to find satisfaction in good things provided by God.

Jesus warned in a parable that “the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” choke the life out of a heart that is otherwise open to hearing the gospel (Mark 4:19). Paul recognized in his own heart that sin came alive through the law and “produced in me all kind of covetousness” (Rom. 7:8, ESV).

The Bible is clear that all good is found in God alone (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19), not in possessions, status, or any other thing.

Capitalism is Not the Culprit, Greed Is

In summary, capitalism does not foster greed, because covetous desires already reside in every sinful heart, and increasing wealth or aggressive marketing appeals to these preexisting desires. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the power of sin and provides an avenue to avoid these temptations.

Therefore, the existence of greed is not an indictment of capitalism, but rather should serve as an encouragement to local churches to advance the gospel, and help people to recognize the deceitfulness of riches and the temptation of advertising. This is essential for the good of individuals who, as independent moral agents, are responsible before God for every choice they make in the marketplace.

Editor’s Note: Read David Kotter’s full chapter in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism available in the IFWE bookstore.

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  • Phillip Nash

    Excellent thesis. We so often blame the wrong thing when we find ourselves acting unrighteously. We must look into our hearts first.

  • Daniel Pyke

    The author makes a good point about greed being the root of issues that are often blamed exclusively on capitalism. We must take responsibility for our actions, even in less than ideal circumstances.

    However, there are at least two points that I believe were missed. I did not read the book Counting the Cost, so these may have been addressed there. First, we are shaped by the societies and systems that surround us. The pressures that we experience form habits in us, and these pressures and habits either draw us toward or push us away from God. This is the point on liturgy that James K.A. Smith makes in some of his books, and I believe it is a good one. Capitalism may or may not be inherently greedy, but it’s outcome is often to shape greed in us. Now, is this negative shaping an inevitability with capitalism? That would be an interesting topic to explore in an article like this one, and would help answer the question of the inherent goodness or badness of capitalism.

    Second, and this is almost certainly addressed in the book, capitalism is a system that, from one perspective, harnesses greed for positive outcomes. It tries to align the incentives of the greedy person with the incentives of the person in need. On the one hand, this is helpfully realistic – communism, for example, failed in its denial that greed is present in humans. On the other hand, it is a depressing acquiescence to the fallen human condition, and a questionable ends-justify-the-means approach. Perhaps it is like what Churchill said about democracy: capitalism “is the worst [economic system] except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    • Phillip Nash

      Good thoughts and I don’t disagree but if we take as the starting point the fallenness of the human condition, every system is going to be open to abuse and manipulation in some way.

  • Mark Camacho

    The question *is*: does capitalism foster greed inherently? Does it especially lend itself to greed as a motivation? Of course the problem with any economic system is the inherent sinfulness of man, nevertheless…

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