Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Matthew Yglesias, Meet Idiocy. Idiocy, Matt

The normally-lucide Matthew (don't call him Matt) Yglesias posts this humdinger of a travashamockery at his ThinkPress blog. His core argument:

Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior.

If that's not explicit enough, there's this:

... the best people are people who aren’t primarily driven by greed.

Fairly takes your breath away, this example of high-octane horseshit.

The view that greed and attempts to satisfy it are in and of themselves is common, but its commonness doesn't make it any more correct. To paraphrase P.J. O'Rourke's classic line, the entrepreneur who makes $500,000 a year and pays, say, $100,000 in taxes does massively more social good than the hippy tree-hugger who prattles on about the spiritual emptiness of consumerism, and -- this is the important part -- this remains true even if his primary or even sole motivation for running his business is making more money only for the sake of making more money. The beauty of capitalism is that, in a properly-functioning market, it harnesses people's natural greed and drives them to contribute more to the community welfare by providing goods and services that people want to buy out of the belief (possibly erroneous, but that often is a judgment others are not in a position to make) that those goods and services will make their lives better. Consider your favorite locally-owned restaurant. Does the proprietor care more about running a successful business or providing to the community? If it's the latter, why is he or she selling food at even one thin dime above cost? And if it's the former -- even if the proprietor cares *only* about turning a profit and maximizing that profit -- does that make the food taste any less good?

Note that I am not endorsing greed at the expense of others. When people satisfy their greed by extracting instead of creating value -- and the overheated housing market had plenty of these folk, people who could not have looked themselves in the mirror -- then that is wrong. But the problem there is usually dysfunctional or deeply asymmetrical markets and the solution is finding ways to make those markets function better. Two of the more reliable if not infallible ways of that are education and increased transparency. Demonizing those who provide good things to the rest of us with no concern for the rest of us gets us nowhere.

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