It has become the credo of anti-capitalists that Capitalism is driven by greed and therefore it is an evil or unfair system and the best that can be said about it is that it is a necessary evil, but not something good, fair-minded people should embrace. Certainly Christians could never embrace capitalism. This has always struck me as a very cynical and/or narrow view of capitalism that may have another agenda driving it. Ulterior motives or not, I think this is a misconception that we would do well to dispel.

Adam Smith wrote a book in 1776 called “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” and in Book I, Chapter 2 he states that

“In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.”

Apologies for the 18th Century English and phrasing, but Mr. Smith is recognizing what we want to deny and that is that every person is correctly motivated by his own self interest in doing anything. As we might remember, Jesus commands us to love one another as we love ourselves – it is a given that we love ourselves.

We primarily want to survive and since we are not of the animal kingdom, it is impossible for us to survive on our own. We need other people to help us to survive and increasingly more people if we want to survive with abundance. In order to secure the assistance of numerous people we will have to appeal to their own self interest.

Self Interest is different from Greed, which has been defined by Merriam-Webster as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed” but more thoroughly defined by  as:

“…. the core definition of greed is that it is the obsession with accumulating material goods. A greedy person values material goods more than they value God. The Bible also tells us that greed is something that can never be satisfied. Greed and slothfulness have similarities in definition. The greedy and slothful both crave material goods as well as they have no desire to work for or to exchange anything of value for the object of their desires. The slothful will not work even for basic necessities much less add value to the world around them. The greedy will use deception to acquire material goods. The greedy will lie and use false pretenses to acquired goods at the expense of others….”

I take issue with the Merriam-Webster definition since they include the phrase “than is needed” which is subjective, so I believe the biblically based definition is more helpful.

Self Interest on the other hand is defined as follows:

  1. A concern for one’s own advantage and well-being; one’s own interest or advantage. – Merriam-Webster
  2. Acting in the way that is most personally beneficial. – Investopedia 
  3. Regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others; personal interest or advantage. –

Most sources define this as a neutral trait or as I have stated above, the normal response of human beings, the desire to do what is of benefit to themselves. The clear difference between Greed and Self-Interest is the willingness to actually do something of value for other human beings to secure the things that benefit themselves.

Seriously, the “sin” is not-so-much wanting to provide for oneself or ones loved ones, but the method of doing that. Starting a business to provide goods or services that people want to buy is not a sin. Charging whatever one wants for that good or service is not a sin. Working for a company that provides a good or service and having ambition to reach the top of that organization is not a “sin”.

The “sin” is in wanting to provide for yourself or your loved ones but not being willing to provide anything to society in return for that provision. The “sin” is in wanting to accumulate so much for yourself at the expense of others and at the total disregard for others or specifically “on the backs” of others. This is really the problem of greed and it is most manifest today in the actions of the Occupy Wall Street Protestors who continue to leach off of communities benevolence in allowing them to occupy parks, etc. and at the same time demanding that wealth be taken from those who have to give to those that do not, in the form of free health care, education, high wages and debt forgiveness.

Capitalism is a system that recognizes human nature and capitalizes on that to create a society that prospers based on self-interest. Generosity and benevolence are higher characteristics that increasingly manifest themselves when individuals have satisfactorily provided for their basic needs. Generosity and benevolence are higher characteristics that increasingly manifest themselves as people understand that they are created by God and are answerable to Him for their actions and how they interact with other human beings. Generosity and benevolence can not be institutionalized as a way of structuring an economic system.