We seem to be living in a moment when greed has taken hold of a large segment of the population. There have been times in history when self-sacrifice was prized.  At other times banding together for a common goal was admired. President Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Why the change in values?

Obviously greed has always existed and has been considered an undesirable trait or even a "sin". Now public figures are unashamed to make pronouncements like "Greed is good". Here are several possible reasons.

We live in a secular age. In spite of the large amount of public acknowledgment paid to religion it does not influence behavior the way it did in past ages. The growth of scientific knowledge has led to greater understanding of how the universe works and even the faithful know in their innermost hearts that the historical pictures of the afterlife no longer seem as possible. As a consequence people are more focused on the here and now rather than the hereafter. With only one chance on earth, "get as much as you can" becomes more important than self denial in the hopes of a better afterlife. So fear of death and the aftermath motivates people to drown out their feelings with the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. If you keep running fast enough maybe you can bury your fears in incessant activity.

Simultaneously life has become more uncertain. Large changes in the organization of society have left people fearful about their social status in the future. Not only job insecurity, but health insecurity and old age insecurity leave people worried. Getting a large nest egg seems to be the best way to insulate against risk. And once you start to worry about economic security how much is enough?
Will we have a future like Weimar Germany with people carrying money in wheelbarrows because of uncontrolled inflation? In recent memory interest rates reached 13% in the US. What happens to your nest egg then? Since there is no way to anticipate, no amount of wealth can guarantee true security.

Fearful attitudes lead to a self-centered view of life. Protection of the self replaces community cooperation. People become less willing to contribute to the common good since even that portion of their wealth might be hoarded. The consequence is an unwillingness to support government projects and the related taxation. What good does a higher school tax do me when I don't have any children in school anymore? Or why pay for a park when I prefer golf?
People lose sight of the fact that there is some other social good that they favor that is covered by taxes. Perhaps a road improvement or more policing. The social contract between the populace and the government has become weakened. If the promise of old age and health security was restored people's underlying generosity would then return and selfishness and greed would recede.

Moral: Secure citizens are generous citizens.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.