Economy: The Human History of Greed

Those Wall Street bonus-baggers may have been innovative enough to develop credit default swaps, but they didn't invent greed. No, that's been around as long as there have been people, and stuff to lust after.

In every era, there have been people who had an excessive desire to accumulate money, power and prestige, says Ryan K. Balot, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and author of "Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens" (Princeton University Press, 2001). In earlier eras, it may have focused more on power than wealth, and acquisitions were carried out on battlefields instead of boardrooms. But it had the same basic definition: the desire for excess. And it provoked the same ire. "Greed in the ancient world and almost all of the modern world is a term of abuse and object of criticism," says Balot. "You very rarely find people making the argument that greed is good."

Perhaps, but it sure was lucrative in recent years. Some recent examples: the 73 AIG employees who each were handed at least $1 million in bonuses (though some have been talked into returning them); Bernard Madoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges and may have bilked his clients of more than $50 billion; and Stanford Group chairman R. Allen Stanford, who is accused of orchestrating an $8 billion Ponzi scheme. Still, they are only the latest symbols of wretched excess and the newest lightning rods of populist anger.

That anger ebbs and flows along with economic cycles, says Robert Brent Toplin, a history professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. "In our culture, we are not that concerned about greed; it's not usually on our radar screens." When the economy turns sour, when there is the perception that people who are accumulating great sums are doing it dishonestly or at the expense of many who are suffering, "then we get angry," he says.

It's not hard to find historic examples of greed. You can call central casting, and order up conquerors and criminals, kings and their consorts, religious pretenders and robber barons, political bosses and Wall Streeters to fill out more than one top-10 list. But first you have to define greed, and that's a challenge. It's not just about having wealth. If it were, Bill Gates, the wealthiest person on the planet, would also be the greediest. He's not, of course: Gates made his fortune building a productive business and then spent a fair amount of it on charitable pursuits, and most ethicists would say that disqualifies him from being the greediest person ever.

To be really greedy, a person has to not just want and acquire a lot of material wealth. He (or she) needs to come by it less than honestly, and enjoy stacking it up in the face of the far less fortunate. He has to put his own desire for stuff above the needs and legitimate concerns of those around him. In the business world, that often means cheating. Madoff, for example, didn't just get rich, he got rich by faking an entire investment enterprise and doing it at the expense of decent charities and people who had trusted him with their life savings. All that just served to make him the most-hated guy of ... well, of February. By March, all that populist anger had turned to the AIG bonus boys. It wasn't just that they got fat bonuses after their firm took U.S. government bailout funds, it was that they were collecting them while others in the U.S. were losing their jobs, houses and retirement investments. And those were the people whose taxes were paying for the AIG bonuses. What made the AIG-ers seem even more objectionable was the perception that the same guys who were bagging the bonuses had created the strategies that led to the financial mess in the first place.

"When you're taking things that aren't rightfully yours, or entering areas where you are closing off opportunities for others, your ambition has turned into greed," says Pat Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center, a Washington think tank. "It's a fine line."

Maybe it is a fine line, and maybe that line moves with the times. But most people—populists and presidents—know it when they see it. And the truly egregiously greedy—like the 12 who made our list—look like the real thing.