That Barbarous Greed


June 9, 2014 12:57PM

“People are just greedy these days, man. No one does things because they love their craft, or because they love others, like they used to,” yawned my barber to me recently, as he spun my chair around and began shaving the back of my neck. I responded that, strange as it may seem, the best haircuts I get typically come from the greediest of barbers. What followed was a fantastic conversation about economics, morality, and, in particular, what sorts of personal motivations best provide wealth and freedom for the greatest number of people. As we chatted, it became clearer that what he meant by greed was self-interest, and that what really got him upset was the idea of people being motivated by profits. But should these motivations really surprise, let alone upset, anyone? Self-interest does seem to create problems in mixed economies such as ours, where crony capitalists constantly collude with legislators to lay claim on other people’s money in the form of tax benefits or subsidies; but, in a society where stealing is accepted so long as it’s done indirectly through elected officials, that’s only to say that people are people. Just like the Occupy Wall Street crowd, my barber is blaming the wrong party. In truly free markets, where exchanges happen voluntarily, the pursuit of profit is a good thing, because people would only do business when all parties are richer as a result. In his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations, philosopher Adam Smith famously said, “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 self-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.”Almost everything that has made our lives better—shoes, computers, electricity, anesthetics, airplanes, etc.—are the result of self-interested individuals seeking their fortune. Rather than chastising the motivations of society’s entrepreneurs, we should demand, reclaim, and preserve a free economy. While paying up, my barber said it would be his last day downtown, and would be moving to another shop across town to West End…presumably to earn more money! Perhaps I’ll run into him sometime and we can continue the conversation. Better yet, maybe he will read up on Adam Smith in between cuts. -Sam Cosby Enjoy the Beacon blog? Help us keep it going with a tax-deductible gift.