Want a Better World? Make a Profit

A few days ago, I noticed a post on Fast Company’s Co.Exist titled, “Is Working on Wall Street Actually the Most Ethical Career Choice?”  The post is about a project called 80,000 hours that is trying to get people to think about how best to spend the average 80,000 hours they will be in a career.

Somewhat refreshingly, the project encourages people to consider going into high-income careers rather than the non-profit world.  It describes the outsized impact you can have by funding several causes vs. working in one.  But the premise remains: to do good, it’s nonprofits that provide the boots on the ground.  You might have to bite the bullet and take a high-paying job so that you can support such efforts, but it’s very clear that aid and charitable organizations are what make the world a better place.

What’s so odd about this perspective is that all the evidence in world history reveals just the opposite.  There has not been a single, massively transformative development driven by charity work.  But millions upon millions have seen the end of poverty, disease and plague; we’ve seen lifespans extended, air and water cleaned, culture, art and beauty preserved and enhanced, and lives saved by profit-seeking enterprises.

Working for profit is, in a free-market, always a win for others.  Profit is a signal.  It reveals when value has been added to society, as measured by the subjective values of those in society.  Resources are purchased for a price.  That price is what the resources are valued at for their next best use.  Profit-seekers then do something to the resources.  They apply ideas, time, other resources and labor.  What comes out the other end is sold.  If consumers willingly pay a price high enough to cover the cost of inputs plus some, profit is made.  What does that profit signify?  It signifies value created.  It shows how much more valuable the resources are after the transformation than before.  It shows, in dollars, how much better off people are because of the enterprise.

Of course dollars are not a perfect measurement of value.  And of course economic value is subjective and changing.  But there is no perfect measurement, and there is none clearer, cleaner, or fairer.  You can ask people what they value, but when they willingly trade their dollars for it, it speaks volumes.  Any uncoerced exchange that generates profit should be hailed as a wonderful benefit to the world.

Sure, you can make a bunch of money so you can give lots away to causes you believe in.  That’s a wonderful thing.  It feels good.  It can help some people in tangible ways that are fulfilling to be a part of.  The truth is, whether you like it or not, you’re doing more good for the world by the activity that makes you the money (so long as it’s not subsidy, tax, or regulation supported) than by the activities you support in giving it away.

I highly recommend this excellent article by F.A. Harper on “The Greatest Economic Charity“.

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