How Our Market System Generates a Dangerous Form of Greed

This piece appeared the last weekend of November, 2023, as a newspaper op/ed in the very red congressional district in which I ran for Congress as the Democratic nominee in 2012. 

Here, the piece is followed by an exchange I had, one the online form of one of those newspapers, with one of the readers. (He is apparently a fundamentalist Christian, and he engages me regularly when my op/eds appear.) 


An idea that is central to my life’s work is that “the ugliness we see in the civilized human world is not human nature writ large.” The idea is that there are systemic forces at work that drive things in certain directions because of the dynamics at work in the system, not because that is what people knowingly and freely choose.

One of those systems — one that generated a truly destructive systemic force — is the overarching system of interacting civilized societies that emerged when our species stepped onto the path of civilization (roughly 10,000 years ago). That unprecedented step generated an unprecedented kind of disorder (Anarchy) that inevitably mandated that human civilization would develop in the direction of power-maximization.

Another, such system — whose inherent dynamic drives the human world to go in some undesirable directions — is the corporate economy as it exists now in our society.

The market economy — including that of advanced industrial capitalism — is far more benign than the intersocietal system. Whereas the latter condemns everyone to defend itself against violence, the market operates with great efficiency to generate productivity and to meet a substantial range of human needs.

Nonetheless, there are serious problems, as illustrated in a previous piece titled “Who Kills for Money?”

In that piece, I indicated that every time an industry has discovered that what is making the industry rich is also killing people, the industry has kept that knowledge secret –often actively deceiving the public – in order to protect its own short-term profits. So driven by greed that it choose to kill for money.

This was true of:

• the asbestos industry, which hid the truth that the particles of asbestos to which they were exposing their workers, and the communities in which they operated, would prove deadly;

• the tobacco industry, which launched a decades-long propaganda campaign to keep people from knowing that their tobacco products were killing their customers; and worst of all,

• the fossil fuel industry, which has known for more than forty years that the burning of their products was altering the atmosphere in ways that could alter the earth’s climate in potentially catastrophic ways, but which continually worked to keep the public in the dark.

That should suffice to ring an alarm bell: While the average human being is not so greedy that they’d be willing to kill for money (as I would assert), every industry having to make that choice has proved so driven by greed that it chose to sacrifice the lives of others for their own enrichment.

Which raises the question: Why are these industries, with their giant corporations, greedier than the humankind out of whose economic system they arose?

Part of the answer lies in the way the corporate world has evolved: in particular, the system has created an almost total separation between the decision-makers and the “owners.”

When industrial capitalism first took off in the United States, the great corporations were owned and run by individual human beings (like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt). But the system has long since evolved into publicly held corporations whose “owners” are essentially powerless and mute.

Although capitalism is premised on the sanctity of Private Property, stockholders do not have any meaningful control over their “property.” (As anyone who has held stock in a publicly-traded company knows, and as economists have shown since the 1930s, it is rare that being an “owner” gives one any real voice in corporate decision-making.

While the supposed owners are mute, the corporate executives who make the real decisions continually declare that they are acting to serve the stockholders’ interests. But they invariably reduce the “interests” of these “owners” to getting a maximal return on their investment.

But the reality is that the owners are human beings with a variety of interests. But as the system assumes the owners are motived only by greed, the corporate world enthrones greed — the maximization of corporate profits — as the sole motivating force of the human world.

That illustrates how a systemic dynamic can make the human world more broken than the human beings that live within it.

It would not have to be that way. The owners could be given voice to express the full range of their values — their desire for enrichment but other values, too.

I propose that it be legislated that — whenever a corporate decision will have a significant impact on the wider world — the stockholders shall vote to indicate how much they want their corporation to maximize profits, and how much they want to accept less profit for themselves in order to serve some larger good.

(“Larger good” — like the rights of workers, like the public health, like protecting our children and grandchildren from a planet-wide environmental catastrophe.)

Let the Owners Decide is a good name for this improved corporate system.

In America, “private property” has long been justifiably a revered value. But what we have now is a betrayal of that concept, because the powerlessness of the property owners has put the system on a destructive kind of Autopilot, where only Greed determines the course society takes.

“Greed is good” works up to a point, in a market economy. But it is folly to allow Greed to become our absolute ruler.

The systemic force needs to be corrected to enable the full spectrum of our humanity to make decisions better than killing for money.




You are describing the problem we refer to as “sin”. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”


I’d be interested in knowing, dreamcrusher, if you’re aware that what you’re saying about the evil coming out of the heart is altogether different from the point I was making in this article.

Do you agree with me that most of the individual human beings that you know WOULD NOT KILL FOR MONEY?

My point is that SYSTEMIC FORCES operate to make the human world — in some important ways — WORSE THAN THE HUMAN BEINGS who make up that world.

In other words, this piece is not about all the evil that comes out of the “heart” of individual human beings (though of course that can be part of the picture). It is, rather, about the need to correct against the systemic forces that make our world worse if we don’t understand, and take measures to disable, the forces that are a function of how the SYSTEM works, and not of the “hearts” of people generally.


The corporations are made up of individual people. The “force” that you speak of is a way to remove the blame from the individuals that are making the “choices”. People are always willing to risk other peoples lives for money. You gave a few examples. Another would be when I drive my car to work. I am risking other people’s lives to earn a paycheck. That is greed on my part. Should I risk another’s life for a day’s wages? Should I walk to work?


I can see now that the idea of “the whole” being “more than the sum of its parts” is foreign to you. You think that I’m imagining a “force” of a systemic nature as a way of shifting blame from the individuals. You apparently think that it is impossible for there to be any “systemic force” that grows out of the system and that is not determined by the nature of the individuals in it.

If you can’t imagine anything like a systemic force of that sort, then it will clearly be impossible to get what the piece above has to say. If human beings in general would not do what major corporate industries have shown themselves inclined to choose — i.e. to Kill for Money” — then clearly that difference needs something besides “human nature” (and human sin) to account for that vast difference.

So, dreamcrusher, do you really think that pretty much everybody would be willing to kill for money? If you don’t, you are in need of a better theory than the one you’ve articulated, according to which the human world is explained by “individuals that are making the ‘choices.'”


Among the books authored by Andy Schmookler is The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny (SUNY Press, 1993), in which the chapter “Autopilot” lays out the idea of “Let the Owners Decide” in greater detail.

Schmookler’s more comprehensive picture of the challenge facing humankind can be found on his website,


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