The Definition of Greed

What is greed?

The dictionary defines greed as


n.  An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth.

(greed. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved September 07, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/greed)

I have a problem with this definition, from one perspective:  Everyone has more than they “need.”  We learn early in life that our “needs” consist of food, water, shelter, air and (generally) clothing.  Everything else is a “want.”  So by the definition above, practically everyone in America and the majority of people on this planet are greedy.  We own computers, automobiles, cellular phones, washing machines, televisions and more.

Surely this is not the case?  Surely greed cannot be such a broad concept that the vast majority of people on this planet are guilty?

Perhaps the author of the definition was referring to having significantly greater “want” possessions than needs.  Again, however, in most of Europe, North America and a great deal of South America and Asia people have significantly greater wants than they have needs.  Indeed, by this definition, it would seem that we must live in poverty to not be greedy.

So there is something wrong with our official definition of greed.

Then there is the colloquiol definition:  Anyone who earns a great deal of money or who has significant possessions is greedy.  We see this when friends or co-workers talk about “Wall Street bankers” or insurance company executives and their “excessive” compensation packages.  Bill Gates, before giving the bulk of his fortune to charity, was heavily scrutinized and reviled by many.

Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey (one of the wealthiest people in the world), Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover seem to be left off this list, as are the leaders of certain companies such as Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple) and until recently John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods).

This colloquiol definition, however, seems to shift depending on the person, their personal beliefs, their mood, current situation and perception.  After all, if George Soros ($11.0 billion), Ted Turner ($2.3 billion) and Steve Jobs ($3.4 billion) with their massive fortunes are not “greedy,” surely neither are Lee Scott (CEO of Wal Mart, net worth unknown, under $1.0 billion) or Bob Nardelli (former CEO of Home Depot, whose “golden parachute” resignation was highly criticized).  If Oprah Winfrey ($2.7 billion) is not greedy, how is it that Rupert Murdoch ($4.0 billion) is?

So if neither the dictionary definition nor the colloquiol definition are acceptable, what must the true definition of “greed” be?

I submit that greed should be defined as “the desire to use or act of using force, coercion or fraud to exact greater compensation than the compensating party would determine to be fair, or accepting compensation for the commission of same.”

Notice in this definition that “fairness” is not the overriding factor.  Many people pay more for a product than the believe is fair.  I pay more than I believe is fair for many products, but I pay for them because I want them.

For example, when I stop at a gas station, I usually pay more for a 20 oz bottle of Coke Zero than I would if I got a 32-oz cup from the fountain.  However, I can re-seal the bottle and maintain the carbonation.  It seems unfair to me to pay more for less, but it is still a “fair” exchange because I would rather part with my money and have that product, even though I believe I am over-paying.  There is no greed on the part of the gas station owner or Coca-Cola.

If I go to the store and choose a more-expensive MP3 player due to its popularity or perceived “cool,” even though I could get a better one for the same or less money, again it is free exchange.  I am paying more for a lesser product, but doing so willingly.

If, however, I go to purchase a used car and the salesman lies to me about its condition (say, it has a faulty fuel pump), I am paying more for a product than it is worth due to fraud.  In this case, the salesman has acted in a greedy manner:  He lied to me about the car’s condition so he could receive greater compensation.  The same goes for the progenitor of a ponzi scheme:  He is lying about the investment to defraud the investors.

If I am mugged and forced to hand over my wallet, the robber was greedy:  He used force to relieve me of my property in exchange for my life.

If I have some skeleton in my closet and someone blackmails me, the blackmailer is greedy: They used coercion to exact payment to not do something.

When a politician accepts a political contribution (or a bribe) to steer legislation, they have accepted compensation to commit the government to an act of force or coercion.

Selling a product for a profit, even a product for which millions of people are willing to pay a tremendous premium, is not in and of itself “greed.”  If it were, then all of those wealthy people listed above would be greedy, including Oprah Winfrey, George Soros and Steve Jobs, not just Bob Nardelli and Rupert Murdoch and the ill-defined “Wall Street banker.”

If we limit the definition of greed to simply acquiring wealth, then we demonize all persons who attempt to create a better life for themselves and their families.  Acquiring wealth is the surest insurance against the throes of the economy.  Surely this cannot, on its own, be evil?

Cross-posted at Seeking Liberty.