Over at Cafe Hayek today, Don Boudreaux highlights the story of Viktor Schreckengost, an
inventor industrial designer who passed away recently at age 101. He was the inventor or designer of a number of products that have certainly made the lives of ordinary Americans better in ways too numerous to count: mass-produced dinnerware, riding lawn mowers, bicycles and coffins, and putting the cab over the engine in trucks. As Don points out, he has probably done more for humanity than any single politician of the last century. I'd add "or perhaps the sum total thereof." Don's blog entry is a nice tribute.
What fascinates me is the point Don makes about how people like this get overlooked when we think about heroes of humanity. We laud the politicians and the war-makers and perhaps the great scientists, but almost never the entrepreneur and the inventor even though the latter have done more for humanity than the former. (Unless, of course, like Bill Gates, the entrepreneur is seen as "atoning for his sins.")
I suspect that the reason for this is that these people are unseen doers of unintended good. For most, if not all of them, the joy of their work is pleasing their own sense of accomplishment or intellectual curiosity or challenging their inventive skills. Perhaps they are motivated by making money. What matters is that few of them are likely motivated by a desire to, in and of itself, make the world a better place. The beauty of the market is that they don't need to be altruistic in motivation to generate consequences that do, in fact, help others.
The "problem" is that we do not have a moral category for the "unintended doing of good." We have such categories for intentional good and harm and even unintended harm (e.g, negligence), but not the unintended doing of good. Plus, markets are such that the invention or innovation becomes much more important than the inventor or innovator. The very fact that we didn't know who Viktor Schreckengost was despite having benefited greatly from his work makes it awfully hard to give him the treatment he deserves.
Some of this is surely evolutionary as most of human history has
been spent in social environments where unintended consequences,
particularly beneficial ones, were far less common than being able to
directly see our intentions enacted, especially in social
interactions. Our ape-brain has to work very hard to consciously
understand the relationship between the individual and the
positive unintended consequences that flow from him in the way that Don
B.'s lauding of Viktor Schreckengost highlights. Hence we pay more
attention to Bill Gates when he donates his wealth than when he created
it, even though the latter will have done much more for humanity than
In Law, Legislation, and Liberty (vol 2, p. 98), Hayek (in one of his most Randian moments) wrote:
There can be no moral claim to something that would not exist but for the decision of others to risk their resources on its creation. What those who attack great private wealth do not understand is that it is neither by physical effort nor by the mere act of saving and investing, but by directing resources to the most productive uses that wealth is chiefly created. And there can be no doubt that most of those who have built up great fortunes in the form of new industrial plants and the like have thereby benefited more people through creating opportunities for more rewarding employment than if they had given their superfluity away to the poor. The suggestion that in these cases those to whom in fact the workers are most indebted do wrong rather than greatly benefit them is an absurdity.
What Hayek says of employment opportunities is equally true of cheaper consumption opportunities. In both cases, the unintended doing of good goes unseen, while the nanny-staters, the wealth-destroyers, and the war-makers and their defenders in academia and the media remain in the glare of the spotlight. At the end of the day, the market economy's defenders need to find ways to portray this unintended doing of good through the media, art, and music so that we can properly appreciate the Viktor Schreckengosts while they are still alive and, in so doing, inspire young people to believe that lives like his are great contributions to human well-being and are morally praiseworthy as a result, whatever their intentions might be.