Wall Street By Stone “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” If any three simple sentences could sum up the 80s, those are probably the ones. The 1980s were an age of illusions, one that was hedonistic in nature and self-loathing in practice. As Haynes Johnson recalls, it was “a society favored with material riches beyond measure and a political system whose freedoms made it the envy of every nation on earth.” Released in 1987, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was made in the height of 80s greed and materialism. The film revolves around the actions of two main characters, Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko.
Bud is a young stockbroker who comes from a working-class family and Gekko is a millionaire whom Bud admires and longs to be associated with. The film is successful at pointing out how tragic it is to trade in morality for money. The character of Gordon Gekko personifies this message, and yet receives a standing ovation at a stockholders meeting after delivering a “greed is good” speech. The underlying theme of the movie, however, is that greed is bad. Economist George Gilder would say that individuals like Gekko who pursue only their self-interests are led, “as by an invisible hand,” toward a greater welfare state. He says that people pursuing self-interest demand comfort and security and that they don’t take the risks that result in growth and achievement.
At the start of Wall Street, Bud Fox is young and very nave about the business world. He is a typical broker seeking new clients and offering second-hand advice regarding the buying and selling of stock. “Just once I’d like to be on that side,” he says, dreaming of the day when he will be a corporate big shot controlling the flow of millions of dollars, like his hero, Gordon Gekko. In pursuit of his dream, Bud makes a visit to Gekko’s office with a box of Havana cigars on his birthday in hopes of winning him over as a client. He wants to sell him stocks, and hopefully one day be like he is.
Bud is desperate to do business with Gekko and he passes on some inside information about the airline company that his father works for. Gekko makes some money on the deal and opens an account with Bud. As the relationship between the two develops, we see a drastic change in Bud’s character, as he becomes aware of the corruptness and ruthlessness of the industry in which he works. Gordon “Greed” Gekko is a money hungry, lizard-like (hence, the name “Gekko”) corporate millionaire. He is the embodiment of the popular idea of “something for nothing.” Throughout the movie, he says such things as “if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing for money” and “greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” He has everything he could possible want–wife, family, estate, pool, limousine, priceless art objects–and yet, he seems unhappy.
He represents the 80s of an insatiable desire to have more. Money to him is nothing; it is merely a way of keeping score to him–it is all a game. At a board meeting for a certain company, he concludes a speech by saying, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Although at times during the movie Gekko’s success can be applauded, in the end, it is shown that his greed has many subsequent negative effects on those people that surround him.
He is accused during the same board meeting of being a “destroyer of companies” and responds by proclaiming that he is a “liberator of companies!” However, his sole reason for buying into Bud’s father’s airline company is to make his money and split. It is only when Gekko betrays Bud by wrecking his father’s airline company that Bud begins to realize that his actions are immoral and heeds the advice of his father, “Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.” Bud learns that greed is in fact bad and that it hurts other people. The target of Wall Street is not those criminals on Wall Street that commit illegal activities like that of Bud and Gekko. It is the value system of the 80s that places profits and wealth above any other consideration.
The movie is clearly an attack on the greed and self-loathing of the 80s and shows the negative effects that it can have on society. A famous supply-side economist of the 80s, had George Gilder been a character in Wall Street, he would have given the same advice that Bud’s father gave him about creating and producing. In Wealth and Poverty, he gives a simple and very similar quote that says, “Give and you will be given unto.” Gilder believes that there are such things as absolute truths like this and that society will necessarily reflect those truths, over time, in its organization and behavior. His thought on capitalism and free enterprise is that “capitalism begins with giving. Not from greed, avarice, or even self-love can one expect the rewards of commerce, but from a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind.” Gilder is not necessarily against greed but also does not think of the word in the sense that most people do. He believes that those greedy actions are merely part of the spirit of capitalism.
He says that a new project or economic activity will succeed only to the extent that it responds to the needs of others. The effort to fulfill the needs of others is essential to important achievement. He realizes that in any society, there are going to be self-interested people and that such people have a lot of room to display their wares in a free society. But this doesn’t mean the essence of capitalism that part of it that accounts for its unique success in creating wealth is self-interested, or greedy. In Wealth and Poverty, Gilder presents the idea that the competitive activity of men, attempting to support their families, is a crucial impulse of economic growth.
He believes that men have an innate behavior of having to support themselves and their families and that they have a competitive drive that makes them want to succeed. Men have to perform in order to please women in a way that women don’t have to perform in order to please men. It is like if you ask the average man why he works, he will likely pull out his wallet and show you a picture of his wife and kids. He also suggests that men work to impress other men and their peers, almost as if saying that men do these things so that they can boast about them afterwards. This competitive drive can be seen in Gordon Gekko as he boasts to Bud, “You see that building over there? I bought it three years ago. My first real estate transaction. I sold it ten months later and made $800,000 profit.
It was better than sex!” Gilder also relies heavily on defining a workable family unit and relates the failure in the economy to the breakup of the modern family. The male gets, in exchange for his support, warm food, a warm bed, warm pleasantries, and sexual satisfaction. “The chief problem is the anguish inflicted on both the husband and the wife and thus on their relationship when the woman is forced to work despite the intensely increasing need for her in the home.” Gilder believes that when the family is reestablished, so will the economy establish itself strong and fair. A charge that even defenders of capitalism make is that “capitalism is morally vacant.” In response to this, Gilder says that “capitalist freedom undermines capitalism both because freedom defines no moral basis for its results, and because its successes are really dependent not on liberty but on bourgeois disciplines and restraints-diligence, integrity, and rationality.” Basically, Gilder believes that there are “moral capitalists” and that the freedom at the heart of capitalism is what gives those people choice in what they do. Many might believe that Gordon Gekko in Wall Street is a “moral capitalist,” but he does not do things out of the creativity or genuineness of capitalism. His actions are characterized by predetermined objectives of self-indulging himself with other people’s money.
The only pure act of “moral capitalism” in the film seems to be when Bud borrows a sum of money from his father and then returns it to him later in the movie. “Moral capitalism” can be traced back to early civilizations where gift giving constituted an act of investment or trade. When one gave a gift or presented a feast to others, he was almost making an investment without any predetermined thought on how his favor should be returned to him. “Capitalist production entails trust-in one’s neighbors, in one’s society, and in the compensatory logic of the cosmos. Search and you shall find: give and you will be given unto; supply creates its own demand.” George Gilder is a strong supporter of capitalism when it starts with “giving,” and he believes that this giving will eventually turn it into profits, being beneficial to all of society. He believes that “greed is an appetite for unneeded and unearned wealth and power.
The truly greedy seek comfort and security first. They seek goods and clout they have not earned. Because the best and safest way to gain unearned pay is to get the state to take it from others, greed leads, as by an invisible hand, toward ever more government action – to socialism, not capitalism.” The greed that is described here characterizes Gordon Gekko when he says, “I don’t throw darts. I bet on sure things.” Free enterprise to Gordon Gekko is like a game and the money that is involved is merely a way of keeping score. It is not the money that captivates Gekko but rather the sensation that he has won and come out on top.
In order for capitalism to work, the investor must give his money freely but with Gekko, his greediness keeps him from doing so. His sole purpose of investment is to create money for him, not to help others in society. Gilder would say that this would eliminate the spirit of capitalism and that the greediness that characterizes Gekko can only lead to failure of society and entrepreneurship, as can be seen in Wall Street. It is virtually “the understanding of the Law of Reciprocity, that one must supply in order to demand, save in order to invest, consider others in order to serve oneself, [that] is crucial to all life in society.” In the end, greed is bad and reciprocity is good–supply-side economics with a hidden Confucius agenda.