Thou Shall Not Covet


For eight years, greed has been the most fashionable vice. It has made the cover of Time and won Michael Douglas an Academy Award. It has helped countless editorial writers fill countless column inches. Denounce greed in the '80s and you demonstrate purity, both spiritual and ideological.

The '80s are almost over. And now that we have a preppy president instead of a nouveau riche one, the greed-bashers are hoping for a return to the good old days before investment bankers, Vanity Fair, and Donald Trump. Before tax cuts, leveraged buyouts, and entrepreneurship. Before greed.

Greed, you may have noticed, is a pretty slippery concept. It's not just a matter of money. You never hear anyone call zillionaire capitalist Jane Fonda greedy. But some Goldman Sachs drone working 70-hour weeks, now he is greedy.

Greed just isn't much of a word. It lacks precision. Does it simply mean wanting things? Wanting the wrong things? Not wanting the right things? Wanting to keep the things you have? Wanting to have more things? Is it a matter of morality, or just a matter of taste?

We ought to find a more-precise vice. I'd suggest covetousness. To covet means not just to want things but to want things that belong to other people. And of that vice the American body politic is woefully guilty.

Indeed, while the covetous scheme to grab other people's property, they often denounce their victims as "greedy." ("Greedy landlords" is a particular favorite.) Supporters of the California initiative requiring insurance companies to roll back their prices frequently resorted to this tactic. By portraying the insurance companies as greedy, they convinced voters that there was nothing wrong with stealing from them.

When they blur the distinction between wanting to take from others and wanting to earn (or keep) your own property, the greed-bashers undermine the whole idea of private property. And, contrary to what they'd have us believe, our society won't decay just because some people want big houses, beautiful clothes, excellent educations, or even pretentious yachts. Greed won't make us decadent. But covetousness will.

At the local level, for instance, coveting your neighbor's house has completely corrupted government. Real estate developers with covetous eyes can get the Community Redevelopment Agency to swipe whole neighborhoods with eminent domain power—then turn over the property at a fraction of its value. Tenants can push through rent control laws that give them effective ownership of their apartments. And voters with a hankering for nice views can pass zoning ordinances that turn the future site of someone's dream home into legally required "open space." In this struggle to take from others before they take from you, there is no room for anything as pure as honest greed.

The greatest monument to public covetousness is, of course, the federal budget. Item after item represents the forcible transfer of the goods of the many to satisfy the desires of the few. Some $400 billion a year—40 percent of the budget—goes directly to individuals.

But that's only the beginning. Plenty of other programs exist solely because some group has gotten its covetous hands on the public treasury. The Small Business Administration, for example, costs $1.2 billion a year to run and benefits only 0.2 percent of the nation's small businesses. Subsidies for the nation's 5 million farmers run $25 billion a year. The U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration spends $5 million a year to promote tourism to the United States—a little-known service to the nation's hotel industry. Five million here, five million there and pretty soon it adds up to real money.

In his book Takings, legal scholar Richard Epstein suggests that the only constitutional use of tax money is to provide some good or service of equal value to the taxpayer. Just as the government must pay a homeowner "just compensation" if it takes his home to make room for a road, so it must justly compensate those from whom it takes money. Unbridled public covetousness has no place in a free society.

In the other Vanity Fair—the novel by Thackeray, not the trendy magazine—there are two great chapters called "How to Live on Nothing A-Year" and "The Subject Continued." In them, a dissolute couple live the good life, running up bills at honest tradesmen's shops, then skipping town heedless of the consequences. Thackeray's story provides a fitting metaphor for the state of our public weal:

"This was the way, then Crawley got his house for nothing: for though Raggles had to pay taxes and rates, and the interest of the mortgage to his brother butler; and the insurance of his life; and the charges for his children at school; and the value of the meat and drink which his own family—and for a time that of Colonel Crawley too—consumed; and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself into the Fleet Prison: yet somebody must pay even for gentlemen who live on nothing a-year."

The problem with our political system is that we rob Raggles to pay Crawley and then denounce Raggles as greedy when he tries to keep what he has.