By Baraka Sudi.
In Leo Tolstoy’s classic short story How Much Land Does a Man Need, the central character Pahom starts off as a poor peasant. Through ambition and hard work, he succeeds in his agricultural endeavors and is able to buy larger pieces of land.
He is, however, never satisfied as each larger piece of land he buys becomes small to him in a short while.
That is until heâ€™s told of some place where people buy land not per acre but per day. The Bakshir people, possessing huge tracts of land sell it in an unusual way. With 1,000 Russian roubles for a day, and starting from morning, you walk around as much land as you want, marking your route with a spade and if you manage to reach the starting point before sunset the whole land enclosed in your route becomes yours.
Pahom could hardly hide his joy over such an arrangement. Unfortunately his greed becomes his Achilles heel in the literal sense of the word.
Determined to curve out for himself the maximum land possible he goes too far with too little rest or refreshment and has to strain extremely hard to return to the starting point when he discovers the sun is about to set. Yes, he reaches the starting point just as the sun sets but out of hunger, thirst and exhaustion he drops dead.
His servants quickly dig a 6 feet deep grave and bury him. Yes, how much land does a man need according to Tolstoy? 6 feet deep!
Of course Tolstoy was not lambasting greed in all its forms, he only had issues with extreme greed of Pahomâ€™s kind. The desire to accumulate as much as possible, to dominate, is the main driving force in any capitalistic economy. There are downsides to this desire of course, but on the whole it benefits the society.
At an individual level, the desire to make as much money as possible is what makes people to work hard, nurture entrepreneurial spirit, exploit new resources, avail goods and services to the rest of us etc etc. And so, for example, while many of us might find figures like Chris Kirubi morally repulsive and despicable in every manner, there is little doubt that their insatiable greed has created jobs for many other people.
In Nigeria, Dangote Group, owned by the billionaire Aliko Dangote employs over 26,000 people and thousands of other indirectly. Those in know accuse Dangote of monumental greed. Greedy people are, therefore, surprisingly not entirely bad, at least as far as the economy is concerned. They only become dangerous both to themselves and the society when the greed becomes extreme like Jordan Belfoultâ€™s in Wolf of Wallstreet, Kamlesh Pattniâ€™s, the many founders of pyramid schemes that left pain and tears in many homes in the 2000s and of course, Pahomâ€™s.
There is, however, one area that should remain at all times closed to any form of greed- the public sector.
Governments donâ€™t make their own money. In a way they are like NGOâ€™s only that their donors are the citizens legally forced to â€˜donateâ€™ to it from whatever they earn. The reason we hold NGOs on a higher moral pedestal than other organizations is that we view their proprietors not as people overly concerned with money making but of serving a higher social good.
Why shouldnâ€™t we demand the same from the government when they are, for all practical purposes, similar? We have turned things so upside down that there is now stigma against people who donâ€™t steal from the government. Kenyatta 1 himself once scolded an assistant minister for not â€˜eating enoughâ€™ from his ministry. And the crowd cheered.
To Kenyatta, not being greedy in government was a sign of stupidity and naivety he could not condone. That thinking is now unfortunately shared by a vast majority of Kenyans.
This week we will be visited by the leader of the most powerful country in the world, a country that was fortunate enough to have to have not a Kenyatta but a Washington as its first president. For while Kenyatta, quite poor, became vastly wealthy as president. Washington, on the other hand, vastly wealthy, became quite poor as president.
Obama, who has achieved moderate wealth through sales of his two books, will be met by our top two leaders, both dollar millionaires whose source of wealth is not free enterprise but shameless stealing of public coffers either by themselves or their parents.
Though not a Catholic, Obama showed from an early age the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. For when a young man the future saint was shown many beautiful girls and told to choose one of them as a wife, he replied â€˜I have chosen the most beautiful one of them allâ€™ Asked who, he replied â€˜La Poverta (poverty)â€™.
Like St. Francis, Obama, when given many high paying job offers from top law firms after graduating from Harvard, made a similar choice- to become a community organizer in the ghettos of Chicago with a pay just enough to pay his bills alone. Now a former community organizer leads an $18 trillion economy (for comparison the whole of Africaâ€™s economy is just around $2.3 trillion).
Here in Kenya a millionaire who had no qualms grabbing a small IDPâ€™s land and a school field is a step away from the presidency. And we wonder why we remain a Third World country?
If we are to become a great country we must at all times make it clear to those pursuing high office that it is an â€˜either orâ€™ choice not â€˜andâ€™. Either you want to make money or you want to serve your fellow citizens. Not to make money and serve the public. As long people come to the government to make money, nothing will save us from the poverty we find ourselves in.
Moderate greed is good for the society when confined in the private sector. Unleashed in government like it has been in this country since independence, the consequences become tragic for all.
Baraka Sudi is a guest blogger on Kenya Today.