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Greedy capitalism vs. the beauty of collective action

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Does commercial life enhance our civilization or does civilization thrive despite commercial dealing? Does being in business degrade our human sensibilities or enhance them? Adam Smith argued that being in business enhanced fellow-feeling forcing one to put oneself in the shoes of the customer. Others argue that this is romance, that it is collective action through the political process that calls to our higher instincts.

Michael Lewis, in a recent piece for Vanity Fair [2], wrote about the destructive impact of using the political process:

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

This echoes the point Don made here [3].

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