For me, the defining moment of the Reagan years came in 1986 when Ivan Boesky gave his infamous speech on the positive aspects of greed at the University of California, during which he said "I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself".
When I heard that, it made me feel sick. I wasn't sure exactly why, other than the obvious lack of ethical sensibility it showed. It made me feel deeply, personally offended; and it made me vaguely fear the future.
Years later, I have a better understanding of the problem. It seems the prime legacy of the Reagan years was to confuse the definitions of "ambition" and "greed" in popular culture. And now, the neocon movement defends "greed" as if it were ambition.
GREED is not the same as AMBITION:
Ambition: a cherished desire; "his ambition is to own his own business"; a strong drive for success
Greed: excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves; avarice: reprehensible acquisitiveness; insatiable desire for wealth (personified as one of the deadly sins)
"Ambition" is healthy. You can be "ambitious" and still feel good about yourself.
Ambition is a constructive force. It is part of what defines "greatness". It builds companies, expands the economy, creates jobs, increases wealth for others as well as the ambitious. It is the pursuit of an idea, and is driven by the imagination. The success or failure of the ambitious lies mainly in their own energy, strength and ingenuity.
Sometimes ambition wears an ugly, or at least unseemly, face, as the ambitious may do things that are harsh or unpopular. This seems to be where people get confused. The ambitious often must make difficult decisions, and sometimes can afford little indulgence for compassion or loyalty. Sometimes they even do things which are clearly unethical. The end result however, is sometimes great achievement.
Henry Ford was ambitious. Wendy's founder Dave Thomas was ambitious. Mary Kay Ash was ambitious, as was Martha Stewart, like her or not. All achieved their wealth through the pursuit of a vision.
But greed --- oh greed is a different thing entirely.
Greed is the prostitute of ambition.
Greed is the pursuit of wealth without vision, without imagination. Greed is a destructive force. Greed in a family can rip it apart. Greed in a corporation drives it into ruin. Greed in leadership can turn democracy into tyranny.
The success of the greedy depends on the indecencies they are willing to commit. How readily they cheat and steal, and how little they are willing to leave for others. Greed is quick and savage and does not consider the future, and therefore has little need of the ethics required to build relationships and institutions.
In fact, greed almost never builds anything, but it can fail spectacularly. Enron, of course, is the poster child of greed. But there are many lesser known corporations whose executives are well versed in the practice of greed, and they are stealing our futures, on scales large and small, by taking more than they deserve, and giving nothing back --- not vision, not leadership, not growth.
If you are an American wage earner, you have to worry that your company may be one of them. You have virtually no protection from these greedy, save for that provided by your government in laws and regulations created to favor ambition over greed.
The problem is, our current administration appears to be greedy, and not merely ambitious. With government on their side, the greedy can practice avarice overtly. Without the protection of our government, we are naked and exposed to any indecency they wish to commit.
A society led by the greedy cannot sustain itself for long.