Following my post last week, Capitalism, Greed and the American Way: Are they Synonymous?, I concluded that greed and capitalism are obviously not synonymous. A number of readers commented on the post so I wanted to explore this a little further.
Recently I reread an ancient story about a very rich farmer. It seems he was so successful that he ran out of space to store his abundance. So his solution was to tear down his barns, build new ones, and hoard all of his crops and possessions for his own personal benefit. His self-absorbed mindset concluded that the obvious response to his success was to simply “eat, drink and be merry” and waste all he had been blessed with on himself.
Yesterday I read another business story in an article at Bloomberg.com entitled How Two Guys Lost God but Found $40 Million. This rags to riches story relays the experiences of a couple of Jewish guys, Abe Zeines and Meir Hurwitz, who found a way to prey on small businesses via a venture called “merchant cash advance. It’s a legal way to lend money to small businesses at interest rates higher than Mafia loan sharks once charged.”
The two partners ultimately sold their business for $100 million in early 2015 and walked away clearing $20 million each. With their new-found wealth, the two men bought a mansion in Puerto Rico, and the following excerpt from the article describes their current life: “golfing, gambling and picking up women…” Interestingly, though, the two acknowledge that “making some money hadn’t made (them) happy; it just made (them) want more.”
So if the above ventures were capitalistic in nature, why did the owners respond so selfishly? Perhaps these four truths about capitalism will shed some light:
Truth #1: Capitalism acts as a portal into one’s soul
While capitalism enabled Zeines and Hurwitz to achieve millionaire status, it also was the portal that revealed what was already deep within their souls. Capitalism and the success that can come with it will simply reveal the best and the worst of a man. If greed lurks within the recesses of a man, it will be amplified as the man’s business profits. On the flip side, though, if compassion, generosity and concern for one’s fellow man are values of the entrepreneur, those same qualities will flourish and gain significance as that man is blessed with material gain.
Truth #2: Capitalism requires one to focus on the needs of others
We should remember that capitalism is not about me, as in the business owner, but rather it’s about others. In the book, “Business Secrets from the Bible” Rabbi Daniel Lapin reveals a secret that validates this truth: “Focus on other people’s needs and desires and you will never, ever be short of what you yourself desire or need.” Lapin goes on to say that “there is only one way to make money (legally): finding out what other people want or need and then providing those things to as many of our fellow humans as possible.”
Capitalism enables us to serve the needs of others in the most effective and efficient manner. And the more people you serve, the more financially successful you will be (assuming the economics of your business are sound). Sadly, though, this truth does not guard against exploiters of capitalism.
Truth #3: Capitalism promotes the golden rule
A central core of Judeo-Christian values is the concept of the golden rule: Do unto other as you would have them do unto you. The clear teaching here is that we must treat others in the same manner we desire to be treated. This truth, while deeply engrained into our traditional Western values, is not universal as socialism and even some religions do not embrace this rule.
But capitalism at its core requires the golden rule for it to flourish and carry on. Consider that if a business owner mistreats his customers in a manner that he would reject if he were the customer, ultimately his customers will not return. While we can find examples of businesses who have obviously mistreated their customers, such as Zeines and Hurwitz did to their clients, in the long run, businesses or an entire industry like theirs will ultimately fail if they reject the golden rule.
Truth #4: Capitalism enables one to help another
If you’ve ever flown on an airline, you’ve no doubt heard the flight crew instruction prior to taking off informing passengers of what to do in the case of a loss of oxygen. Prior to helping others, including their young child, passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen mask first and then help the child sitting beside them. The clear message is that one cannot help another if they are incapacitated themselves. Likewise, as we look around our community or world, we see many in dire need. However, before we can help those who are less fortunate, we must have the capacity to do so.
As entrepreneurs build and grow their enterprises with the right motives and a sound economic model, success is inevitable. And as that success begins to increase the owner’s resources, he is at an increased level of opportunity to reach out and help those in need beside him, or half way around the world. This is the beauty of capitalism: the entrepreneur meets the needs of his customers which in turn enables the owner to meet the needs of his family, his community, and his world. And this all occurs because of a voluntary economic exchange.
As we wrap up our discussion about capitalism, I trust that we will consider this sobering thought from Luke 12: “To whom much is given, much is required.” As individuals who have been blessed with the gift of capitalism, something that billions of people in our world do not possess, I trust that you and I will find ourselves faithful stewards of this great gift. May we continue to defend and pursue capitalism in a manner that acknowledges these four truths and preserves it for generations to come.