Socialism Runs on Greed too, it Just Removes the Engine
I often hear the criticism that capitalism runs on greed. In a sense, this may be true. Yet capitalism has a catch: my ‘greed’ must stay within certain boundaries. I cannot lawfully take from you without your consent, nor can I lie to you in order to receive your permission. We have certain so-called ‘natural rights’ (to our bodies, free will, and the fruits of our labor), and these rights form the boundaries that we may exercise our freedom within. Because I cannot cross your boundary without your consent, any boundary crossing must– in some sense– be mutually beneficial to the both of us (the basis of contract law). This creates an incentive for me to work hard and to treat you with respect. In order to serve my own self-interest, I must first serve your interest. Thus, my ‘greed’ is kept in check by your ‘greed.’ At its core, capitalism is based not on greed or even self-interest, but on the principle of non-aggression– the foundation of civil society.
In a socialist system, the boundary is different. If rights exist at all, they are not absolute, and may be subject to the will of select individuals or a majority vote. Because of this, I do not necessarily have to follow the principle of non-aggression. The difference between this and social chaos is that I go through a third party (the government), which performs the aggressive act for me on my behalf.
It seems to me that– rather than conquer greed– such a system legitimizes and institutionalizes envy. It says that, instead of having to get the permission of my neighbor to share in his wealth or his skill by benefiting him in some way or appealing to his sense of charity, I am entitled to it by my very existence. My covetousness is no longer seen as a deadly sin, but as the righteous pursuit of egalitarianism. Socialism elevates material equality to a status greater than political equality (equality of rights and equal protection under the law). Proponents of such a system say that it is fundamentally non-materialistic. Yet if its proponents are really so ambivalent to material pleasures, why do they place such a strong emphasis on the need for material equality?
We can all agree that some degree of self-interest is prudent and morally proper. I submit to you that the line between self-interest and ‘greed’ is the crossing of the boundary of non-aggression without voluntary consent, and that this is the very essence of socialism.
Envy can drive me to better myself, but only if I am prevented from pursuing my goals at your expense. Socialism removes this barrier, allowing me to take from you without creating something of equal value in the process. This creates an incentive for me to treat you as a means to my own ends; to sacrifice yourself for my own benefit rather than to participate in a peaceful exchange that benefits the both of us. This is why the capitalist system generates so much wealth and productivity, while the socialist system only (re)distributes existing wealth. Both run on ‘greed,’ but capitalism confines that greed to an incentive structure that is socially beneficial.