Thursday, April 9, 2009

Public Service

In a post yesterday at EconLog, economist David Henderson raised a point that I've often thought myself. Many of us have the idea that some jobs are a "public service," while others are "merely" about making money. A paid job with a government or a non-profit organization is "public service." A paid job with a for-profit organization is supposedly not.

In my view, everyone who makes something that other people want or need, or provides a service that other people want or need, is doing public service. All these people may not be motivated by a desire to benefit "the community," but neither are many people who work in government or non-profits (as I used to do). Most people just want a decent job, and whether it's with the government, a non-profit, or a for-profit is not especially important.

The public service that for-profit workers do is making or providing something that other people want more than the money they part with to get it. That's the essence of adding value, creating wealth in the non-zero-sum activity of free exchange. As Adam Smith said, in a statement that is well known but too poorly internalized, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

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