Greed is Gross

“Greed … is good”, corporate raider Gordon Gekko recites in the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. Apparently, however, many Europeans do not view greed as something good at all. Statistics show that no less than 23% of all EU citizens aged over 15 years are involved in voluntary work. This means that some 100 million Europeans of all ages, from all walks of life, and from various religious and non-religious backgrounds are committed to offering free time and talents to a good cause; or to what they think is a good cause – opinions may differ. This year 2011 Europe celebrates the European Year of Volunteering: voluntary work and volunteers get their due recognition.

In times of global financial crisis and growing worries about our financial well-being, it is comforting to know that there are so many people willing to lend a helping hand without asking for money in return. But we may be surprised as well. Taking a closer look at the ideology behind the financial crisis, we discover how these 100 million volunteers defy the core tenet of hard core 21st century capitalism: greed is good, because the accumulation of individual greed amounts to advancing what is good for all of us. In the USA the Russian emigrant Ayn Rand greatly popularised this idea, saying that the individual’s greed is the only guarantee of economic progress, prosperity and happiness. No need to say that Rand was quite disgusted with the idea of altruism.
Meanwhile, the mystery remains. How is it possible that the accumulation of individual greed will bring about a fair and just world for all? And what’s more, in real life greed seems rather gross than good.

Pope Benedict XVI will also contribute to the European Year of Volunteering. On the feastday of Saint Martin of Tours and the following day (11 and 12 November 2011) representatives of the many European Bishops’ Conferences will gather in Rome to discuss with Pope Benedict the theme of voluntary work. After all, following the example of Jesus Christ, countless Christians, lay people, priests, religious sisters and monks, have sacrificed their lives to charity. In fact, in the Netherlands, church-goers are more involved in voluntary work than those who don’t go to church.
There exists, however, a direct link between economic prosperity and volunteer work. While affluent society enables individuals in Western Europe to spend free time for a good cause, in Central and Eastern Europe, this free time is often used to earn some much-needed extra money. Taking that into account, volunteers in Central and Eastern Europe deserve our admiration even more. (FH)