Thoughts on the Too-Easy Use of the Word “Greed”

by Don Boudreaux on May 23, 2013

in Civil Society, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen

While driving yesterday I listened for a while to ESPN radio.  Among the topics that the show’s hosts explored was greed – in particular, the “greed” of professional sports franchises such as the Washington Redskins and the New York Yankees to produce and sell to fans ever-more logo-ladened paraphernalia.  Some of the radio hosts were more sensible than others, but every one of them assumed without question that “greed” is the appropriate term to use to describe the motivation of owners of pro sports teams to earn more money by supplying more of the likes of baseball caps, jerseys, and jackets emblazoned with team colors and images of team mascots.

All of the hosts agreed that there’s something a bit sleazy and disreputable about the aggressive production and supply of such paraphernalia.  In short, it was an all-too-typical shallow discussion of commerce.

For my purposes here I assume (I believe realistically) that professional sports-team owners’ actions to sell more of their teams’ paraphernalia are indeed motivated solely by their desire to earn more money for themselves.  But I ask: why are such actions described as “greedy”?

Fans purchase that paraphernalia voluntarily – indeed, they do so, apparently, with great gusto.  According to the ESPN-radio hosts, fans can’t get enough of the stuff.  Whatever is produced and made available for sale is scarfed up quickly by buyers.  But not once did the radio hosts describe the fans who buy sports paraphernalia as “greedy.”  Not once did the radio hosts give any hint that they understood that the production of such paraphernalia occurs because sports fans have a high demand for such paraphernalia; such production and retailing would not occur in the absence of such consumer demand.

So why are the economic choices and actions of that group of people who are entrepreneurially alert to the potential existence of these demands – and who, in response, risk their resources to do nothing more than give consumers the opportunity to satisfy these demands – singled out for ridicule and condemnation by being called “greedy”?  Why are not the economic choices and actions of consumers – without which resources would not be diverted from other uses and employed instead to make more sports-team paraphernalia – ridiculed and condemned as lamentable manifestations of greed?

Of course, I don’t regard either group of economic actors here – neither the team owners nor the fans – as being appropriately described as “greedy.”  The fans are buying with their own money utterly harmless, and for them fun, items; the team owners are using their own resources to satisfy their fans’ peaceable and legitimate demands for these items.  Would team owners be more meritorious if, in spite of their suspecting that many fans value such paraphernalia – value such paraphernalia so highly that it’s worthwhile to use considerable amounts of resources to produce such paraphernalia – these owners refused to produce and sell such paraphernalia?  ”People really want lots of baseball caps and jerseys with my team’s emblems on them,” says the team-owning mogul, “so I’ll be damned if I’ll supply these things!”

Maybe his favorite preacher or New York Times pundit or ESPN-radio host convinced him that selling such items is, if not downright evil, at least a bit unscrupulous.  So he refrains.  Is he a better person for refraining?  Is the world a better place as a result of his refraining?  If the answer to both questions is no, why, then, describe business-people’s efforts to satisfy as fully as possible consumer demands as manifestations of greed?

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