“Greed is good,” must be one of the most notorious lines in any Hollywood film. It has come to epitomise what are widely seen as the excesses of the super-rich in general and financiers in particular. The obsession with acquiring wealth is routinely blamed for many of the problems plaguing western societies.
Ironically, many remember Wall Street, the 1987 film from which the line came, as a celebration of excess. In fact, the goal of the director, Oliver Stone, was to do the opposite. The film was essentially a morality tale in which Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider who uttered the line, got his comeuppance.
The Devil’s Riches is an erudite attempt to put the idea of greed into its proper context. Jared Poley, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, argues against the idea that greed has gradually become acceptable over time. The thrust of his argument is that the story is much more complicated.
More importantly, he makes a strong case that attitudes towards greed have played a central role in defining both the operation of capitalism and the views of its critics. What is considered a balanced view on the acquisition of wealth has varied considerably over time. Different outlooks — including liberalism, socialism and environmentalism — are also partly defined by their particular take on this question.
Poley is also insistent the meaning of greed — or near-synonyms such as avarice and covetousness — has changed substantially over the centuries. Those living in different eras have understood the concept in different ways.
Nevertheless, the first example given in Poley’s introduction has a contemporary resonance, despite dating from the 1420s. On Avarice by Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance humanist, tells the story of a conversation between three men at a dinner party. One of them, the host, argues that avarice is worse even than lust. Another claims that there are “collateral benefits of greed”. The final guest reaffirms the initial attack by arguing that greed is unnatural, “effeminising” and a form of self-enslavement.
So in the abstract it seems that the views expressed are not that different from contemporary ones. On the one hand, there are the critics of greed and, on the other, supporters claim that avarice can produce benefits.
But Poley is insistent the meaning of the term has to be understood in relation to its specific historical context. For example, in the Reformation of the 16th century, with the emergence of the Protestant church, the attack on greed was largely aimed at the existing church hierarchy.
Another important though subtle shift came in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Bernard Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch thinker, wrote about the topic in the 1720s in his famous The Fable of the Bees. In his view, avarice had a positive side as it provided the foundation for economic change. In 1726, Jonathan Swift voiced a similar view in Gulliver’s Travels. In a passage on the origin of money, Gulliver is quoted as arguing that spending can be a virtue.
Adam Smith, the most famous economic thinker of the 18th century, built on these ideas. Although Smith maintained the language of morality — he was, after all, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments — his argument was that economic motivation can play a positive role if it is conducted assiduously. In The Wealth of Nations there is, he says, a clear line between self-interest and avarice.
From the 19th century onwards, the idea of greed went in many different directions. Not only did it inform several political outlooks but it was viewed in different ways by disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. Mainstream economics was unusual in that it often eschewed a moral stance towards greed. Contemporary economists tend to see themselves as focusing on understanding reality, rather than tackling morals.
The main weakness of The Devil’s Riches is its sketchy character. In about 200 pages it covers almost six centuries of intellectual history. As a result, its arguments are underdeveloped at times. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking study of a subject that is too often taken for granted, rather than subjected to critical examination.
The Devil’s Riches: A Modern History of Greed, by Jared Poley, Berghahn, RRP$110.00/£68.00
The writer is the author of Ferraris for All (Policy Press 2012)