Making a Difference and Serving the Public
Art Carden wrote a recent article that is both simple and profound. It’s titled “You Are Making a Difference: You Just Have to Know How to Look at it,” American Institute for Economic Research,” January 16, 2024.
Here are three key paragraphs:
Look around you at the countless ways people are making important differences in the lives of the people around them, even if they don’t intend to. Someone who designs a better salad bar or who lays out a better floor plan for a grocery store might not think he’s feeding the poor, clothing the naked, or fighting food insecurity. But he is, and without transferring resources to other people but by creating new ways for people to cooperate.
Part of the beauty of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life and the tragedy of George Bailey is that he doesn’t seem to understand just how big a difference he is making by working to save three cents on a length of pipe. The seeming triviality of running the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan obscured a lot of the points that became evident at the very end of the movie when people took up a collection to help him make up for the shortfall in his accounts.
One of Charles Dickens’s characters, Mrs. Jellyby, is so consumed with saving the world and feeding Africa that she ignores her family. It’s easy to ignore the ordinary business of life in pursuit of some kind of noble extraordinary business; however, it’s the very ordinary business that makes the biggest difference. That’s how George Bailey changed the world by changing Bedford Falls.
The whole thing is worth reading.
It reminded me of a discussion on a panel I chaired at a Hoover Institution event some years ago. The conference was a one-day affair to celebrate George Shultz’s 95th birthday. One of the speakers on the panel was Condi Rice. An issue that came up in the Q&A was that of “public service.” Condi said that she encouraged young people to do some public service, whether in the military or the government more generally. I pointed out that people who work at McDonald’s are engaged in public service: they serve the public. I could have gone further and pointed out that when you’re in government, you might tell yourself that you’re serving the public but it’s hard to know because there’s no market test. What if you end up promulgating a regulation to prevent people from getting new inexpensive stoves that run on natural gas? Or what if you’re putting together a regulation that makes dish washers less effective? Are you serving the public? You might be serving a subset of the public that badly wants to interfere in other people’s lives. But is that “the public?”