I came across an interesting bit in a video I was watching yesterday. “How many health care providers are in the room?” asked the kind lady in it. After a show of hands, she said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel like a lot of the work both of us care about so much is in service of others and all of you are dedicating your life for that same purpose.”
The dedication to the “service of others” part caught my attention. It’s curious that healthcare providers such as doctors and nurses, and other people like firefighters, military personnel, etc., are popularly held in higher esteem than sanitation workers, bus drivers, computer programmers, sales people, etc. Somehow some occupations are more “selfless” than others. Sorry to be contrarian but it’s simply not true that occupations can be categorized that way.
Certainly occupations can be justifiably categorized as immoral or moral, legal or illegal, intellectually hard or easy, physically challenging or easy, and so on. But as long as one is getting paid and not doing voluntary work, there’s no selflessness involved. That is not to imply people in various paid occupations are narrowly selfish and lack human decency; it is only that all of us are most of the time primarily — though not solely — motivated by self-regard and not by self-denying altruism.
Simply stated, we do the best we can for ourselves and the people we care about while we try not to hurt others, and we get on with life without making a huge production out of it. Very few people make a public spectacle of any good they actually do, or to note an extreme example, cloak their naked selfishness in hypocritical holy garb like “Mother” Teresa so successfully did.
Properly understood, nearly all occupations are in the service of others. Unless your occupation is being a hermit, like it or not, and whether you intend it or not, you are in the service of others. Let me explain what I mean.
Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish moral philosopher and economist (I am one of that tribe) recognized that ordinary people like us, living our ordinary lives doing what we can for ourselves and our families, end up unintentionally doing what is good for the world. In his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), he wrote that every individual —
“… intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”
Note that he specifically notes that merchants don’t pretend to be in the service of others. And therefore they don’t have to be told to stop “doing good.” Contrast that with the affectations of “public servants” like politicians, bureaucrats and moral busybodies. No amount of pleading with them to stop pretending to be doing the public good will dissuade them from making our lives more miserable than it is or needs to be.
Doctors no doubt serve the public good. But they are not unique in that; every person (with the possible exception of hermits, politicians and busybodies as noted previously) serves the public good. In all those cases, people are motivated by self love and self interest. The process is simple.
We are not self sufficient. We need many more things than we can produce ourselves. Therefore we have to necessarily depend on others for our needs. But we cannot rely on their benevolence and charity. To get what we want we have to provide them with what they value. Our self interest is served by recognizing their self interest, and therefore we have to produce something that we can exchange for what we value.
Smith puts it this way:
[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self‐love in his favor, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. 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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self‐love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Not benevolence but self interest makes the world go round. The proper target of our gratitude is everyone who is engaged in peaceful production and exchange. Both the street porter and the philosopher provide valuable services to humanity. What distinguishes them is not some natural talent but circumstances, as Smith pointed out.
The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the diffusion of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.
Though Smith wrote around 250 years ago, we — economists and non-economists alike — can learn a great deal of the basic principles of how the world works. We should understand what role the division of labor, specialization, and spontaneous order play in making this marvelous world.
The spontaneous evolution of our institutions (such as language, money, law) is one of those marvels. Our actions create them but they are not consciously designed by us. To quote Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), a contemporary of Adam Smith:
Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
To conclude, let’s honor all people for serving us and not just those who appear to be working for the public good.
 Adam Smith is famous for the phrase “invisible hand.” Fun fact is that he used it only three times. He first used it once in his book The History of Astronomy (published sometime before 1758). Then he used it once in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And finally he used it once in his magnum opus (“The Wealth of Nations” quote cited above) of nearly 1000 pages.
Remarkably, just those two words repeated thrice almost define him in the minds of vast multitudes who know essentially nothing about the man or his works. Every educated person ought to know what it means. Here’s how the Encyclopedia Britannica introduces the “invisible hand”:
Invisible hand, metaphor, introduced by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, that characterizes the mechanisms through which beneficial social and economic outcomes may arise from the accumulated self-interested actions of individuals, none of whom intends to bring about such outcomes. The notion of the invisible hand has been employed in economics and other social sciences to explain the division of labour, the emergence of a medium of exchange, the growth of wealth, the patterns (such as price levels) manifest in market competition, and the institutions and rules of society. More controversially, it has been used to argue that free markets, made up of economic agents who act in their own self-interest, deliver the best possible social and economic outcomes.
I note that it says “controversially.” It’s a controversy only if one doesn’t get the idea of spontaneous order.