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The Real Public Service
It was Thomas Edison who brought us electricity, not the Sierra Club.


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Thomas Sowell

Every year about this time, big-government liberals stand up in front of college-commencement crowds across the country and urge the graduates to do the noblest thing possible — become big-government liberals.

That isn’t how they phrase it, of course. Commencement speakers express great reverence for “public service,” as distinguished from narrow private “greed.” There is usually not the slightest sign of embarrassment at this self-serving celebration of the kinds of careers they have chosen — over and above the careers of others who merely provide us with the food we eat, the homes we live in, the clothes we wear, and the medical care that saves our health and our lives.

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What I would like to see is someone with the guts to tell those students: Do you want to be of some use and service to your fellow human beings? Then let your fellow human beings tell you what they want — not with words, but by putting their money where their mouth is.

You want to see more people have better housing? Build it! Become a builder or developer — if you can stand the sneers and disdain of your classmates and professors who regard the very words as repulsive.

Would you like to see more things become more affordable to more people? Then figure out more efficient ways of producing things or more efficient ways of getting those things from the producers to the consumers at a lower cost.

That’s what a man named Sam Walton did when he created Wal-Mart, a boon to people with modest incomes and a bane to the elite intelligentsia. In the process, Sam Walton became rich. Was that the “greed” that you have heard your classmates and professors denounce so smugly? If so, it has been such “greed” that has repeatedly brought prices down and thereby brought the American standard of living up.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, only 15 percent of American families had a flush toilet. Not quite one-fourth had running water. Only 3 percent had electricity, and 1 percent had central heating. Only one American family in a hundred owned an automobile.

By 1970, the vast majority of those American families who were living in poverty had flush toilets, running water, and electricity. By the end of the 20th century, more Americans were connected to the Internet than had been connected to a water pipe or a sewage line at the beginning of the century.

More families have air-conditioning today than had electricity then. Today, more than half of all families with incomes below the official poverty line own a car or truck and have a microwave.

This didn’t come about because of the politicians, bureaucrats, activists, or others in “public service” that you are supposed to admire. No nation ever protested its way from poverty to prosperity or got there through rhetoric or bureaucracies.

It was Thomas Edison who brought us electricity, not the Sierra Club. It was the Wright brothers who got us off the ground, not the Federal Aviation Administration. It was Henry Ford who ended the isolation of millions of Americans by making the automobile affordable, not Ralph Nader.

Those who have helped the poor the most have not been those who have gone around loudly expressing “compassion” for the poor, but those who found ways to make industry more productive and distribution more efficient, so that the poor of today can afford things that the affluent of yesterday could only dream about.

The wonderful places where you are supposed to go to do “public service” are as sheltered from the brutal test of reality as you have been on this campus for the last four — or is it six? — years. In these little cocoons, all that matters is how well you talk the talk. People who go into the marketplace have to walk the walk.

Colleges can teach many valuable skills, but they can also nourish many dangerous illusions. If you really want to be of service to others, then let them decide what is a service by whether they choose to spend their hard-earned money for it.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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