The Occupiers of Wall Street have a laudable goal: to end corporate greed. But do they have a strategy to achieve that goal? In the minds of many protesters, the problem is the capitalist system. It is built on greed, so it is believed. If that assumption is true, then indeed the solution to the economic injustices of our day would lie in dismantling the system. But perhaps greed is not the basis of capitalism.
The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, seems to have opened the door to the accusation that the free market economy is built on greed. His phrase was “self-interest” (though even that was but one of a number of motivations that he said were necessary to make the market function properly). But, as Hill & Rae point out, “Greed is not the same as self-interest” (The Virtues of Capitalism, p.61). Self-interest is surely open to abuse, but is not in itself a vice. Selfishness is; self-interest is not. Paul understood the balance: “Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). Self-interest is not a problem; it only becomes a problem when it exists to the exclusion of the interests of others.
It remains true that a person who pursues self-interest in balance with compassion for others and generosity toward those in need may both increase his own wealth and provide enormous benefits to others. A food bank run by volunteers is a great way to provide food for people; but so is a grocery store in which an owner is financially rewarded for his investment in the venture and his employees enjoy the benefits of being paid to provide people with food.