All Commentary
Friday, August 1, 1980

Idealism and Students

Dr. Russell is Professor of Management, School of Business Administration, The University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.

College students tend to be highly idealistic. Most of them truly want to help their fellow men and women. They want to do something worthwhile with their lives. That’s good, of course; for if we aren’t idealistic in our late ‘teens and early 20s, there’s not much hope for us.

A part of my job as a teacher is to discuss “careers” with these young men and women. Every year, perhaps a half-dozen will ask me to suggest a career that will permit them to earn a good living while also “making a contribution” to our nation and people in general. In most cases, I suspect they’re thinking in terms of a career in government where they’ll work hard to pass good laws to help the people.

While I never specifically advise them against a career in government, I do try to get them to also consider another possibility. My suggestion goes something like this: If you truly want to help your fellowman, perhaps you should consider going into business. Then you can personally produce something that people want and are willing to pay for. Beyond any doubt, that would be a real and needed service.

For example, there are literally millions of young people—especially young couples—who would like to buy a house but can’t. Prices and interest rates are beyond their means. There’s no law that forbids you and me from helping them, however, by building homes at prices and financial terms they can afford. That would be of tremendous help to them.

You could also decide to build better refrigerators and sell them at prices we consumers can pay. That’s how businessmen (and women) earn their profits in a private- ownership economy, i.e., not by compulsory laws but by peacefully satisfying the wants of willing buyers.

That’s what the market economy and freedom of choice are all about. For example, our enormous production of food much of which is used to feed Russians and Chinese is produced by businessmen-farmers who voluntarily decide to do it. Businessmen also produce our clothes and movies, build our churches and tractors, and develop better vaccines to keep us healthier.

True enough, they want to improve their own lot when they sell their products, i.e., they want to earn profits. If they don’t, obviously they’ll soon go broke and disappear. There’s a most unfortunate side effect when that happens: Millions of us Americans are likely to disappear right along with them. For without independent businessmen and women to manage our production and distribution facilities in an economy of choice, we would start the descent back toward the brute-like societies of compulsion and conquest we can observe all around us.

For clear evidence of this inevitable result, look next door at the maximum-security prison called Cuba where exceedingly harsh measures are imposed on people to prevent them from escaping to a land of choice. Look also at the Russian invaders in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and their all-out efforts to destroy human dignity along with human beings. That’s no service to anyone, including even the Russian conquerors and Cuban prison-wardens. For the leaders of those nations themselves are also thereby imprisoned and dehumanized. They just live in better cells.

So if you’d like more people to have more food, medical care, and other products and services they want, do consider a career in business where everyone is free to produce or not produce, and to buy or not buy. Then you can personally help produce and distribute whatever it is that people most want as shown by their willingness to buy it. That includes smaller cars, bigger TV sets, and more vacations abroad.

And if you do a good job of producing them, you are likely to earn profits—hopefully, high profits. You can then use those profits as you think best—including giving them to anyone you choose, and for any reason that appeals to you.