Here's another quick theory brief on moral conflict, game theory, evolutionary biology, and behavioral economics. I'm not looking for agreement with these theory briefs, reasoned opposition to the concepts is just as useful as acceptance -- both get you thinking in new ways.
"Greed is Good" Gordon Gecko.
If we look at the least thirty years through the lens of behavioral economics, one of the most striking changes has been the rise of greed as the ultimate descriptor of much our economic behavior, particularly at the highest rungs of the economic ladder (this shift has even been cited by many as one of the biggest achievements of the economics profession). However, as Yves of the blog Naked Capitalism points out, greed is different than ambition, greed is:
a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed
If approach this from the perspective of game theory and evolutionary biology, the propagation of greed as a virtue among elites is a game changer. It is a survival strategy mightily benefits the early adopters and confers great success. We have clearly seen evidence of this in our experience (from multi-billion dollar fortunes to CEO pay w/o reference to performance to Hamptons estates..). However, once greed becomes a universal survival strategy, it destroys system value (as the formal rules of intrinsic/moral fair play are replaced by hideously expensive and slow enforcement/legal mechanisms). It can also result in the type of massive economic collapse we are seeing today.
Its spread also eventually forces a change in the survival strategies of those people upon which greedy people prey. To compensate, they adopt new strategies such that a new evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) emerges.* In the 20th Century's Depression, the excesses of tycoons/wall street resulted in government intervention to level the playing field to the unionization of workers to full employment public policy to a commitment to public service among elites (from serving in the military to voluntary limitations on pay). In effect, both the strategies of the elites and the rest changed to create a new ESS. This created success, since under this new social compact all boats rose and increases in worker pay were tightly correlated with improvements in worker productivity (that ended in the late '70's with the abandonment of full employment monetary policy).
The ESS for this current situation may look somewhat different. Greed is firmly entrenched among elites on a global scale and unlikely to dissipate (for example, there isn't even a hint of the scandals/public excoriation of excess that occurred during the early years of the 20th Century's Depression). That means that a counter strategy to greed will emerge, as the people not driven solely by greed seek protection against its revealed excesses.
What will this strategy be? We can already see the emergence of it with the shift away from consumerism towards the economic independence of thrift, investment, resilience. Dependence on the larger global economy is being curtailed, firewalls between systemic instability and the local are being set up, and new sources of local and virtual income are replacing older forms. It's possible that we will find the competition between greed at the global level and cooperative resilience at the local will be an evolutionarily stable strategy that will persist for decades to come.
*NOTE: an ESS is a stable set of complimentary strategies that "crowd out" other potential strategies.