To say all this is not to impugn the market. Quite the contrary. It is to say that the market is such a critically important human achievement that what we do there actually matters. That's why our greed makes a difference. There is no special capitalist magic when it comes to greed. We are imperfect creatures, and it's true that our families often can survive our imperfections, as can our governing institutions, our civic organizations, our churches and, yes, our businesses. "Can survive," I say but this requires that our baser instincts be hedged around by social convention, institutional safeguards, a healthy education, a will toward self-improvement, and so on.
It also requires that when a particular base instinct comes disturbingly to the fore in society, we begin to work on its taming in a more conscious and explicit way. And, for this purpose, saying that we can be as greedy as we wish because the market will make a virtue of our greed hardly qualifies as the right sort of work.
The fact is that greed has exactly the same destructive consequences in business as it has elsewhere. Employees and customers and competitors who get walked over by my selfish interest in personal gain are not somehow exempted by the laws of capitalism from suffering the kind of hurt this behavior inflicts in other arenas. Nor are businesses, any more than families and civic organizations, exempt from the stresses caused by such hurt stresses that impose huge economic costs. Nor are the end products of a business likely to be healthy for society when those products were conceived by selfishly grasping minds looking only for personal advantage. You can find a market by encouraging and serving mankind's baser impulses just as you can find a market by serving higher impulses.
This truth is lost even on some of those who make a point of defending moral and spiritual values. George Gilder has written,
The key to the moral superiority of capitalism is that people get rich by imaginatively serving the needs of others. The new information tools allow more people than ever to perform this morally valuable capitalist role. (1996)
It is a strange sort of blind spot that allows him to leave unspoken the fact that people can also get rich by damaging the earth, scorning society, and harming others.
No, capitalism does not harness greed and turn it into good. What it harnesses is diverse individual choice and initiative, which it weaves, without central planning, into a collective tapestry. This is its great and absolutely essential virtue. But the virtue in no way obviates the fact that the tapestry, beautiful or soiled, depends on those individual choices, beautiful or soiled. When the choices are driven more and more by greed, society sickens precisely because capitalism grounds society so fundamentally upon the free individual's choices.
To rejoice that capitalism unleashes the creative power of millions of individuals is quite proper; to turn around and sheepishly say, "Now that the individual has been unleashed, it turns out that it doesn't matter much what the hell he does" well, then, why all the fuss about the creative potentials of the individual in the first place? Or have we discovered some new sort of creative power with potential for good but not for evil?
So please understand that I am not about to set off on a rant against capitalism and the market. I am talking only about how you and I, as free moral individuals, choose to behave in the marketplace, a consideration largely absent from respectable economic thinking.
It's true that there is no room for my topic when it comes to the theoretical elaboration of "market mechanisms." Mechanisms cannot worry about acting healthily or destructively. But we can. An economic theory and a commercial practice that fail to reckon centrally with this fact a fact that no description of a mechanism can fully accommodate are simply irrelevant to the world we live in.