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Did greed predate capitalism?

By DEIRDRE McCLOSKY [from The Bourgeois Virtues] – I don’t much care how “capitalism” is defined, so long as it is not defined a priori to mean vice incarnate. The prejudging definition was favored by Rousseau—though he did not literally use the word “capitalism,” still to be coined—and by Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Luxembourg, Veblen, Goldman, Polanyi, Sartre. Less obviously the same definition was used by their opponents Bentham, Ricardo, Rand, Friedman, Becker. All of them, left and right, defined commercial society at the outset to be bad by any standard higher than successful greed.

Such a definition makes pointless an inquiry into the good and bad of modern commercial society. I think this is what economists like Douglass North, looking recently into the history of institutions, have been seeing: that there’s something going on from 1500 to the present beyond maximum utility on a narrow definition. That is what the middle ground of social thinking in the past three centuries, with which I associate myself, has believed: Montesquieu, Smith, Tocqueville, Keynes, Aron, Hirschman. If modern capitalism is defined to be the same thing as Greed—“the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone…, this boundless greed after riches,” as Marx put it in chapter 1 of Capital, drawing on an anticommercial theme originating in Aristotle—then that settles it, before looking at the evidence.

There’s no evidence, actually, that greed or miserliness or self-interest was new in the sixteenth or the nineteenth or any other century. Auri sacra fames, “for gold the infamous hunger,” is from The Aeneid, book3, line 57, not from Benjamin Franklin or Advertising Age.

From The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, a free ebook from the University of Chicago Press | More Chronicle & Notices.

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