Let's Talk About Five of Them

I was asked today by one gracious writer what I thought was the worst problem we face as a country, and I hesitated, but then answered unreservedly.  Of all the things that confront us, none are more corrosive, intractable, or widespread than that which I consider the deadliest of all sins: Greed.  You might wonder if I hadn’t slipped a gear and shifted into liberal-loony-land with rants about erroneously defined greed, but if you’ll permit me, I’ll be glad to explain.  No other human failing leads to more suffering.  It has been true through all of the history of mankind, and it is to be found in Western civilizations greatest texts, but one of the worst problems about greed is that nobody seems to agree what it is.  It’s my intention here to offer you my own definition, so that you may measure it against your own, and draw your own conclusions.

I hold that greed is the desire for the unearned in material, prestige, reality, or spirit.  In truth, you could simply say “the unearned” and let it go at that, but for the fact that many will neglect the other aspects and focus solely on material matters.  Let’s consider one of Western civilization’s great texts, and examine the Ten Commandments: Four are with regard to man’s relationship with the Almighty, but six are with respect to man’s relations with other men.  Of these six, five could be reduced to a single concept using the definition of greed I’ve laid out.

  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
  • You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

I realize you might wonder how greed is related to murder.  One who commits that act does so for some purpose, but what is it that makes it an expression of greed?  Sometimes, that motive is robbery.  That’s plain enough.  Sometimes the motive is to silence the victim.  This is a  desire for an unearned reality.  Sometimes, a murder is committed for sport.  This is to steal a life for one’s own pleasure, and therefore clearly an act motivated by greed.

Like murder, adultery seems a little challenging on the surface, but under closer examination, it fits the same criteria. People who commit adultery do so generally not wishing to be discovered. This permits them to pursue the pleasure they seek, while maintaining the appearance and respectability of a faithfully married person.  The person who wants this obviously wants what has not been earned, or once earned, discarded and forfeited by their own choices.

Stealing is clear enough.  It doesn’t take rocket science to see the application of greed as a motive in theft.

Bearing false witness is just another way of saying “lie.” To lie to another is an attempt to fake reality. It has widespread applications, but the desire for a false reality is clear evidence of greed.

As with stealing, covetousness is also clearly a matter of greed.

Having established these as instances of behavior driven in some way by greed, let us now consider together the motive of a person who wishes to live without effort and at the expense of others.  Is it not greed?  What of the politician who seeks the prestige of an office and the votes it takes to arrive and remain there without providing the actual service for which he or she was elected?  Is this not greed?  What of the rich man who defrauds his many customers, lying about his products and services to gain more than he would had he been honest?  Is this not greed?

Let us now consider what is not greed.  Is it greed for a person to wish to keep what one has earned by his or her efforts?  Is it greed to wish to be able to employ one’s talents in pursuit of profit?  Is it greed to charge a customer what they are willing to pay for precisely that which they expect?

Do situational ethics come into play?  For instance, we all agree that theft is wrong, and clear evidence of greed, but is it still greed if one were to steal a loaf of bread to feed one’s starving family?  Here is where some controversy will generally arise, because there are those who will say proudly that they will do anything to provide for their families, to include begging, borrowing, or stealing.  Conveniently omitted from that list of “anything” is murder, but you can bet that for some, its omission is a matter of pleasantry but not fact.  My response is that theft is theft, and while you can wrap it up in the pretty bows of necessity all you like, if you resort to theft, you are a thief, and by definition, greed is your motive.  You are seeking the unearned.

You might well wonder how I came to this topic, among all the things people have emailed to me today, and I suppose I owe an explanation.  Simply put, I was asked by a friend about a teen-aged child’s desire for a cellphone.  Apart from all the other reasons I tend to oppose the widespread issuance of cellphones to children, one that has stuck with me these last few weeks was the story from early 2010 about cellphones as a new welfare benefit available to the poor.  Those under the mistaken impression that the poor are somehow incapable of greed really ought to get back in touch with reality.  Much as my friend might like to get his teen a cellphone, he can’t afford one, and economics has ultimately answered the question.  Apparently, however, this need not be an obstacle, unless you happen to work for a living.

What sort of culture have we become when a man who works 60 hour weeks cannot afford a cellphone for his kid, but we now see the government issuing cellphones to others, gratis?  My friend is now in the position of paying for somebody else’s cellphone, but he can’t afford one for everybody in his own family who he thinks may need one.  Ladies and gentlemen, you may wonder why I would wish to talk about greed, and being Sunday morning, this may be one sermon more than many of you are willing to endure, but I must ask you again:  When did the unlimited wishes of the poor become a command to which we must all now answer?

This isn’t merely an entitlement mentality, but a sheer, unrestrained form of greed.  Our government and its bureaucrats now coerce or extort companies to provide free Internet service.  What else, that you or I pay for, is to be issued to others “for free?”

You and I know there are no free phones, no free Internet, and no free lunch, yet we are permitting more and more people to become accustomed to free everything.  Is a cellphone now an indispensable part of the “safety net?” Is Internet service too? We know by now that education, food, shelter, health-care, utilities, and even transportation are part of this widening net.  Where does it end?  Free video games?  Lottery tickets?  Travel allowances?  Vacations?  Golf clubs?  Green fees?  Pet food?  Pet-care?

As I said, the list is endless, and all I want to know is this:  How much of what I have earned will I be forced to do without so that others may have every wish fulfilled and every “need” met?  I think it’s long overdue that we began a national discussion.  I don’t know anybody who would not offer help to those in desperate need, but most I know are tired, exhausted and weary from providing the unlimited wants of those who never seem to manage to earn anything, except lately, a growing contempt.