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“Sociopathic societies”

from Ken Zimmerman

Greed is a personality disorder. While it is sometimes correct that without greed humans would still be living in caves, it is also correct that left unchecked, the insatiable desire for more and better material things can be destructive. These are the warning signs of uncontrolled greed.

The first sign of the greed syndrome is overly self-centered behavior. Greedy people are always saying “me, me, me” with very little regard for the needs and feelings of others. Envy and greed are like twins. While greed is a strong desire for more and more possessions (such as wealth and power), envy goes one step further as a strong desire by greedy people for the possessions of others.

Greedy people lack empathy. Caring—being concerned about the feelings of others—is not part of their way of life. As such, they have little qualms about causing pain to others. Their inability to empathize, their lack of genuine interest in the ideas and feelings of others, and their unwillingness to take personal responsibility for their behavior and actions makes interaction with them very difficult.

Greedy people are never satisfied. They look at the world as a zero-sum game. Instead of thinking that everyone would benefit as the pie gets larger, they view the pie as a constant and want the largest piece. They truly believe that they deserve more, even if it comes at someone else’s expense.

Greedy people are experts in manipulation. They are skilled in taking credit for work done by others. When the occasion requires, they can be charming, but their main scheme is to have people around them who feed their ego.

Greedy people are always in the short run; they are focused on gratifying their immediate needs and leave it to others to cope with the consequences. To illustrate, as leaders of corporations, they are more interested in getting their bonuses, instead of making investments for future innovation, or to share whatever benefits accrued with their employees.

In the pursuit of their material needs, they know no limits. Greedy people are not good at maintaining boundaries. They will compromise moral values and ethics to achieve their goals. They look for loopholes or clever ways to outsmart the rules and regulations that have been put into place to moderate this kind of behavior.

A society where such actions and beliefs are common is sociopathic. Americans might not recognize the term “sociopathic society,” but today they are staring it in the face. After every mass shooting, every cut in vital services, every sabotage of democracy, people were afraid, rightly, for their children and themselves. Our current crisis involves far more than military-style gun massacres and an armed, angry population. It reflects an economy, politics, and culture that are a fertile foundation for a sociopathic society. It’s my view that the United States, with a long history of sociopathic institutions and practices, is now evolving toward a full-blown sociopathic society.


  1. September 6, 2019 at 1:32 am

    Well said Ken. The rot has been progressing for so long it’s hard to step back and see our current reality. You hold up a mirror.

  2. Edward Small
    September 6, 2019 at 2:16 am

    Most of the untoward behavior described here as “greed” isn’t psychopathology so much as selfish and desperate behavior to which most of us are prone under the right circumstances. And we have a brutally competitive system–market economics–which frequently generates those circumstances by continually pitting us against one another, including for what we need to survive. The extreme examples of ‘greed’–the super-rich–though in some respects outliers, nonetheless are also driven and selected for by this system, which is where the real ‘pathology’ lies.

  3. September 6, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Eloquent description of the problem Ken, but nary a word about a solution. Normativity within society won’t get you anywhere in Court, when Justice is held to be served by granting (e.g.) the right to buy up debt for pennies on the dollar and a consequent charging of debtors for the full amount owned. The underlying thesis of an always reigning equilibrium of individualistic utility functions or its tendency to return to one, sociopathically fueled or otherwise, cannot be defeated by the inductive reasoning of apparently the majority here on this forum. IMHO (and aware of your previous objections) the only way to do so is by showing that such (political-economic) sociopathic behaviour concerns the antithesis of a thesis with a judicious set of first principles, using deductive logic to its close and forming a synthesis. Then you give the courts an alternative course of action to deal with a rampant sociopathy in society. They’re basically stuck now in the mindset that micro-economic principles underlie an important part of jurisprudence. A tragic aberration, given that Smith’s WN was founded on parts of his earlier “Lectures on Jurisprudence”. If only classical political economy had continued to develop and hadn’t been abrogated by the elitist Marginalists; and Keynes muddying the “classical” waters later didn’t exactly help either. For more (recently revised) see: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/~vertegaa/ontology.pdf

  4. Robert Locke
    September 6, 2019 at 10:52 am

    It sounds like a current problem, but the encounter with greed is centuries old. People found remedies in the inculcation of societies with moral order, a la Confucius and Frederic Le Play. The remedies start in the home and in community, but currently we are really talking about the directing classes and the problem of motivation and achievement. And an educational system unlike those inherited that is not concerned with moral behavior in leadership.

  5. Rob
    September 6, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    I keep a Procite database (Dave thinks it’s the “internent” ;-), and I punched in “greed” and “rwer” (a collection of all RWER posts and comments that is searchable by terms) and produced the following:

    This post is a continuation of ET1%: Blindfolds Created by Economic Theory, We show how the Invisible Hand theory appears to be neutral but actually favors the top 1%.
    As quoted and refuted in my earlier post on “Failures of the Invisible Hand“, Mankiw writes that: “The reason for excellent functioning of decentralized market economies is that all participants are motivated by self-interest. This self-interest works better than love and kindness in terms of promoting social welfare.”
    What a monstrous statement! How can any human being think such thoughts? This is what comes from cutting off human experience as a source of knowledge, removing hearts from bodies, and leaving only brains floating in vats as a the sole source of knowledge.
    Our hearts — in their pure states –would revolt at the oxymoron of a society based on selfishness. However, contamination by the poisons of economic theory and positivism leads to the blindness to sources of human welfare displayed in the Mankiw quote. In earlier times, A Christmas Carol of Dickens was sufficient as a reminder the wealth is not a measure of welfare. However, modern times reflect modern mindsets, which convert greed and wealth to desirable virtues, as reflected in the Disney version of Uncle Scrooge. So it becomes necessary to argue on logical grounds, appealing to brains in vats, instead of appealing to the heart. read more (Asad Zaman, RWER: The Invisible Hand, 7/22/2018)
    My article with the title above is due to be published in the next issue of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (2019). This was written at the invitation of the editor Clifford Cobb, as an introduction to Islamic Economics for a secular audience. The Paper explains how modern economics is deeply flawed because it ignores the heart and soul of man, and assumes that the best behavior for humans is aligned with short-sighted greed. Islam provides a radically different view, showing how generosity, cooperation, and overcoming the pursuit of desires leads to spiritual progress. Islam seeks to create a society where individuals can make spiritual progress and develop the unique and extraordinary capabilities and potentials which every human being is born with. (Asad Zaman, RWER: Islam’s gift: an economy of spiritual development, 2/4/2019)

    Most economists I have read so far are possessed of an abundance of ideas yet reveal an impoverishment of ideals. The exceptions I note have been my readings in RWER library, where there has generally been both and abundance of ideas and ideals. The comments section not so much.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    September 7, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you all for the wonderful comments.

    Edward, psychopathology is just a name for the things that harm human societies.

    John, I don’t know the solution. If we follow the path of other greed-based societies in history, there will be a species-preservation uprising when greed becomes extreme. I believe we’re approaching that point now in the world today.

    Robert, correct. Beginning when humans first invented personal-individual possessions about 10,000 years ago.

    Rob, isolationism, selfishness, and dehumanizing other humans is the precursor to capitalism. It’s been around about 10,000 years. Growing more extreme with each incarnation.

  7. Ken Zimmerman
    September 7, 2019 at 12:56 pm


  8. Rob
    September 8, 2019 at 3:33 am

    Rob, isolationism, selfishness, and dehumanizing other humans is the precursor to capitalism. It’s been around about 10,000 years. Growing more extreme with each incarnation. ~ Ken Zimmerman

    Ken, I don’t agree with your assessment in many was. Isolationism (aka tribalism), selfishness, and dehumanizing others was not invented by capitalism. In fact these traits long preceded capitalism. You sometimes, in my view, paint primitive man as peace loving and egalitarian, but that is an utopic and naïve illusion; sure, there was a sharing of resources among tribe members, not so much with outsides all the time. You forget we are descended from primates that actively go out and hunt and eat their cousins for the sheer excitement of the hunt. The human species have been dehumanizing outgroups far longer than the historical origin of capitalism. These traits are rooted in our evolutionary human nature, and capitalism merely gives them a venue of further expression. But not all capitalists and capitalisms are same (a distinction your conveniently overlook).
    The many Nordic countries that have mixed economies (just at the US did in the New Deal Era) have neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism. RWER has examples of this line of thought in such essays as “Honest Abe was a co-op dude: how the Donald can save America from capital despotism Stephen T. Ziliak [Roosevelt University, Chicago, USA and University of Newcastle, Australia]” and “Abraham Lincoln and the road to despotism.”
    Modern capitalism is a recent historical phenomenon. A blip on the timeline of human physical, social, moral, and ethical evolution. You paint a monolithic stereotype of capitalism at times that is as misleading as the utopic vision of socialism. I think mankind and the story of human evolution paints a more nuanced picture, including with regards to capitalism.
    I know your ideological bent is socialism will replace capitalism. I find this a bit to simplistic and frankly ideologically naïve. We in the end differ in our assessments, our pessimism vs. optimism that the predatory capitalism of today can be reformed and brought under sane regulation or not (it has been tamed before) and whether in the long, long run of history it will eventually be replaced by something entirely different (I think it will), but in the end that is meaningless speculation.
    Such is where we are I guess. I will work to reform capitalism, to bring it under control of what I understand to be democratic socialism like we see embodied in the Nordic countries. What your vision of a path is I don’t really know except of relentless doom and gloom. I have children and I intend to devote the remander of my life to seeking out and trying to actualize programmatic evolution of capitalism towards a more human ideal such as that seen in the Golden Rule.

    • Rob
      September 8, 2019 at 3:44 am

      Meant to say, “actualize pragmatic evolution of capitalism.” I want to find a balance between idealism and pragmatism. Evolution, while sometimes creative in saltational short bursts of experimental novelty, is nevertheless stabilized by the winnowing of trial and error sifting what works from what doesn’t. I think we coming to a time where social upheaval and potential catastrophic change is a real possibility. Whether it will happen that way nobody really knows, or whether it will be a tumultuous but episodic transformation of generational change nobody really knows. There is where radical uncertainty lies. But we are at, in my view, an inflection point in the mosaic of the ages and change is coming, for better or worse, nobody can deny. I want to work towards making it better, so I am listening to my children closely, and not the old jaded, pissed off pessimists that cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel lest I become that myself.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 8, 2019 at 12:53 pm

        Rob, many early humans were generally pacifist and egalitarian. These were both necessary for survival at that era of human development. But what characterizes humans most distinctly is their imagination and creativity. So, humans invented village, towns, cities, along with agriculture, politics, and economics between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Then they invented isolationism (individualism) selfishness, and dehumanizing enemies, when the population grew large enough that the human groups no longer needed every member for survival. Don’t get me wrong, humans also invented democracy, liberty, charity, etc. Once invented it’s difficult to de-invent any of these. As population grew, diversity of views and beliefs spread and became embedded into cultures. Capitalism was invented much later, but it carried over the earlier notions of individualism, selfishness, etc. You’re correct that there are variations in capitalism, and there is no clear dividing line between capitalism and other ways of organizing economic life. I chose to ignore this history, as it would require several books to work our way through it. As to hunting, for the first 170,000 years on the planet Sapiens was hunted, not hunter. Or, at least small game hunter at best. Sapiens didn’t become aggressive and effective hunters of all sorts of prey until about 30,000 years ago, during what’s called “the cognitive revolution.”

        You’re correct about the Nordic nations, but if you look closely, I think you’ll see differences even between them. For example, Denmark is clearly more conservative politically and economically than Sweden, Norway, and Holland, except sometimes when Norway goes off the deep end with conservative. The Nordics are a mixed bag. For example, pulling one’s weight is much more important in these nations than it is in the US. Everyone, rich, poor, smart, dumb, etc. is expected to have a job and perform it. I wouldn’t call capitalism a blip. It’s been in charge, in the west at least for over 400 years. Don’t forget the current version of Sapiens has only been present for about 30,000 years. Most human social and economic systems grew out of one form or another of utopian notions, in the sense that among all the institutions created by humans, religion seems to have been the first. My “bent” as you call it, is that capitalism (in every version so far) has or is failing in terms of meeting the survival needs of Sapiens as a species. These failures come from the basic assumptions upon which humans created capitalism. These can’t be “reformed” away, in my view. Most versions of socialism meet those needs but create social friction by interfering with that Nordic notion that everyone works. From an evolutionary perspective, “works” has only one meaning – improving the survival chances of a species. Capitalism, and similar ways of life are clearly inferior in terms of Sapiens’ survival. You may be correct that capitalism can be changed to cure this deficiency. But will the result still be capitalism? Culture, on the other hand concerns adaptation. Humans create ways of life that they share to adapt to events they experience. Humans have made tools, built all sorts of shelters, invented languages, etc. for adaptation. Where evolution is not teleological (has no goal, but is only random variations), adaptation has goals, goals humans create and then attempt to perform. Five fingers and a flexible forearm are evolution. The pistol that fits those fingers and forearm is adaptation, culture.

      • Rob
        September 9, 2019 at 1:05 pm

        Economics theory is especially prone to the fallacy of “drawing a distinction where there is no difference.” For example, is there actually a difference in principle between welfare for the poor and tax cuts for the rich? In this joke, Mr. Fenwood is employing a strategy that makes an economic distinction without a difference: Mr. Fenwood had a cow but no place to pasture her. So he went to see his neighbor, Mr. Potter, and offered to pay Potter twenty dollars a month to keep the cow in Potter’s pasture. Potter agreed. Several months went by. The cow was pastured at Mr. Potter’s, but Mr. Fenwood had never given Mr. Potter any money. Finally, Mr. Potter went to see Mr. Fenwood and said, “I know you’ve been struggling financially, so how about if we strike a deal? I’ve had your cow now for ten months, so you owe me $200. I figure that’s about what the cow is worth. How about if I just keep the cow and we’ll call it square?” Fenwood thought for a minute and said, “Keep her one more month and you’ve got a deal!” (Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes” by Thomas Cathcart, Daniel Klein – http://a.co/c3Y1shZ)

        Thought you might enjoy a bit of humor as a break from all this intellectual work :-)

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 9, 2019 at 2:15 pm

        Thanks, Rob. That’s a pip!

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