Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

If someone does something wonderful, but didn’t intend to, does it count? Should we see ourselves as blessed?

You say, “Williams, what are you talking about?”

Try this. In 1846, there were 735 U.S. whaling ships, 80 percent of the world’s whaling fleet. American whalers killed an average of 15,000 whales per year, mostly to produce oil for lamps. By the time whaling dropped off, toward the end of the century, there were only 50,000 whales alive. Had whaling continued, there would be no whales today.

So, who was responsible for saving the whale from extinction? Was it Greenpeace? No, it was multimillionaire David Rockefeller, who successfully marketed kerosene, which took over the illumination market. Later, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb ran both whale oil and kerosene out of the illumination market. Some might say that Rockefeller’s and Edison’s saving the whale doesn’t count because they didn’t intend to do it. They were just greedy capitalists who cared more about profits than saving whales. I say three cheers for Rockefeller and Edison.

There’s another wonderful thing that we never think about, and that’s our supermarkets. The average well-stocked supermarket carries over 50,000 different items. For visitors from other countries, a trip to one of our supermarkets must be like a trip to Disneyland. But what’s the driving force behind this miracle? There’s a bunch of people, literally millions, who don’t give a hoot about you and me personally, but they serve us well. But as far as motivation, they’re in it for themselves – they want more profits, wages, interest and rent.

The list of wonderful things that people do for us is unending. But the most wonderful thing about it is they do it without loving us – they might even hate us. They do it voluntarily; and while we sleep, they’re awake trying to discover other ways to please. That has got to be as close to Paradise here on Earth.

I’m not the first to think about this. In 1776, Adam Smith – the acknowledged father of economics – published “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” In it, he eloquently captures the essence of this wonderfulness, saying: “He (the businessman) generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. .. . He intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain.”

Smith continues: “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. … 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 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.”

Self-interest is the human motivation that is most trustworthy and predictable, and gets the most wonderful things done.

I love it when people, in effect, offer, “Williams, I really don’t give a hoot about you, but if you do this wonderful thing for me, I’ll do this wonderful thing for you.” What worries me is when someone tells me, particularly a politician, “There’s nothing in it for me, but I really care about the health and education of your daughter.” Even more disturbing is when I ask that politician whether he even knows my daughter’s name and he can’t answer.