“I’m retiring from business so that I can give back to the community.”
This is a common phrase that needs qualification. It implies the person in business has been taking from the community, and now, after years of profits, it is time to turn to other pursuits, charity in particular. I have no argument against philanthropy, charity, and volunteerism. Indeed, it is the wealthy business community that funds the large part of what is known as the “third sector.” Everyone should give to the community in the sense of being generous to special causes, the poor, and others.
My problem is with the idea that somehow philanthropy is an action that is diametrically opposed to commercial activity. Merchants of all types are giving to the community. Indeed, in the market economy the only way to make a profit is to give of yourself entirely to the needs of others.
Entrepreneurs spend their lives discerning the needs of others and seeking to meet them in an economically viable way. Their profits provide riches, but only when what they are doing serves others in an efficient manner. Profits are confirmation that the entrepreneur is doing what is economically right. No one in a market economy can be forced to buy anything. You have to provide a product or a service that they prefer more than any other alternative use of their money.
So is this process a service to the community? Of course! There is something wrong with failing to see enterprise itself as a form of service. And yet it is remarkable to me how many people in business have never really thought of their work this way. It’s as if they have bought into the anti-market propaganda that what they are doing is a form of parasitism. On the contrary, they are increasing society’s store of wealth, and thereby providing the means to make our lives better. Should those who are successful in business give to charity? Yes. But in doing so, they are not “giving back.” They are giving more and in a different way.
By contributing to the Acton Institute, you are giving in a special way—to help people understand such distinctions and cut through the confused objections to the contrary.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico,