Saturday, November 03, 2007

The False Dichotomy of "Public Interest" vs. Private Interest

The Washington Post's angstful article, 'Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest', details the lamentations of several twenty-somethings over their career choices in "Public Interest":
Armed with a Georgetown University diploma, Beth Hanley embarked in her 20s on a path hoping to become a professional world-saver. First she worked at nonprofit Bread for the World. Then she taught middle school English in central Africa with the Peace Corps. Finally, to certify her idealism, she graduated last spring with a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington's public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck.

"I knew this would be difficult," said Hanley, an Illinois native who lives in Adams Morgan. "A lot of people say, 'At some point, you're going to have to decide to explore other options,' and I guess I would start applying for jobs in other fields I don't care so much about. But I haven't gotten at all to that point."...
Lest we forget, economist and philosopher Adam Smith noted that private/self-interest is 'baked into' the machinery of a free market. He developed the metaphor of the Invisible Hand to explain this mechanism. The challenge is to balance that self-interest with the Golden Rule. Like with most things, money's poison is in the dose; when it becomes an end onto itslef rather than the means to an end.

Our society benefits from 'self-interested' individuals that responsibly pursue money-making careers which provide a valuable service to the economy. Society also benefits when those individuals are not only self-sufficient but also a net positive with regard to government spending and taxes.

It is money that lubricates the machinery of the economy and the taxes on commerce and wages which in-turn make available trillions of dollars for social services, military spending, foreign aid, infrastructure, local teacher salaries, federal financial-aid, basic medical reasearch, et short private/self-interest finances public interest.

Update: BizzyBlog links to a similar analysis by Transterrestial Musings:
...A couple points. First, the WaPo reporter is obviously sympathetic (not surprising--after all, journalists go into journalism because they too want to "make a difference"). He (or at least the copy editor who wrote the hed) calls them "altruists." But are they? As Mark Twain once wrote in an extensive essay, no one ever does anything they don't want to do. These folks engage in this because it makes them feel good. They're obviously not considering their psychic income when they complain about their compensation.

But the real problem is that many of these policy types, particularly at the NGOs, want to engage in the type of do goodery that the supposed beneficiaries aren't necessarily asking for, and don't value that much (or perhaps value negatively). And in the cases in which they do, they don't necessarily have the money to pay for it...

...But their fundamental premise is flawed. Who is it that really changes the world, and for the better?

I would argue that it is the people like Bill Gates, or Henry Ford, or Thomas Edison, or the Wright brothers, who have a much larger and more beneficial effect on the world than people who "want to make a difference."...


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