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Greed Isn’t Good Enough

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Mitt Romney has been unable to articulate a detailed explanation of his two terms at the helm of Bain Capital. His campaign rhetoric has not dealt with the charges against Bain’s debt-fueled “vulture capitalism”. Instead he has attempted to adopt the mantle of business and capitalism itself. He repeats that profit is a good thing, and that he will not apologize for his success.

That stuff works in a stump speech. Profit is, indeed, a good thing. Romney alludes to Adam Smith’s words:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

To a wider audience, one not already convinced of the virtue of self-interest and deeply mistrusting of the agents of corporatism, Romney’s endorsement of profit is the echo of Gordon Gekko:

You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.

Greed is good, according to Smith and Gekko. It would help Romney if he made a distinction between profit and greed. Greed is an emotion, and a deadly sin. Profit is an outcome of commerce.

Our most under-rated President, Calvin Coolidge, understood that profit is not the ultimate end. The American ideal is not to serve the sin of greed:

We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.

Romney’s recent rhetoric is to equate the American ideal with free-market capitalism and profit. It becomes self-referential. Making millions is the same as saluting the flag.

The Founders included pursuit of profit (happiness in the form of property) as an inalienable right. But it was not the first right and not the only right. Pursuit of property alone lacks any idealism. Voters might be more inspired by Romney is he could demonstrate his ideals and explain how his success served those ideals.

Merely repeating that success is good, and that he is successful, is insufficient to win an election.