Mr. Rogers told his television audience that when we see scary things in the news, it’s encouraging to “look for the helpers.” It is heartwarming to see first responders rescuing people from the wreckage left by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Anonymous and generous men and women can become front-page heroes. The selfless efforts of these “helpers” in Houston and Florida no doubt saved lives. Their sacrifice cannot be overappreciated.
The efforts of people in the marketplace, however, can be underappreciated, if not vilified.
The media rarely celebrate ordinary people doing jobs for which they get paid, or the supply chain of goods that enables occasional acts of heroism, such as driving a truck to a disaster site.
If someone jumps in their pickup truck and drives to Houston with a case of water bottles to give away, we clearly see their contribution to society. What about the professional trucker who brings 500 cases of water to Houston every month to restock a big box store? Or the person who brought generators to Tampa to sell them to people after the power went out? Who helped more — the worker or the volunteer?
The Generous Volunteers after Hurricane Irma vs. the Florida Marketplace
If you measure helping by the helper’s sacrifice, then a citizen donating diapers is more of a helper than a diaper manufacturer, and the person giving away their spare generator is a bigger helper than a man selling generators for a profit. However, if you measure helping by the number of people helped or the helper’s actual material impact, then the diaper manufacturer is the more important helper. The man selling several generators is more impactful than the person giving one away.
Adam Smith famously wrote, “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.” We depend on other people to do their jobs, for which they get paid, to get our dinner every day. Sometimes we get food as a gift or a donation, but that’s not how billions of people are able to eat every day.Disasters, as tragic as they are, inspire people to be generous. Helpers send one-time donations to areas afflicted by flooding. Another event that inspires people to be generous is Christmas. Everyone wants to be a holiday helper. Food banks can be flooded with items in December and struggle to fill empty shelves in the summer.
Generosity can run out. Self-interest is something you can count on to feed your family.
Grocery Store Heroes: Just Doing Their Jobs
My city felt the outer bands of hurricane Irma. In preparation for a power outage, I bought peanut butter and canned fruit from the grocery store. The operators of the local grocery store helped my community and visitors to our city, just by doing their job. The value of the store’s service probably outweighs all the donations my town put together to help hurricane “refugees,” some of whom I hosted in my house.
Similarly, at a national level, many low-income countries get more money from trading with rich countries than they get in foreign aid. Do we think of an entrepreneur in a rich country who trades with people in a poor country as a helper? Rarely. Yet if we measure helping by the outcome, he or she makes a bigger impact than a charity auction once a year.Looking for the volunteer helpers in a scary situation is inspiring and reassuring. It can seem boring to look for those who provide the most material assistance to others, whether there is a disaster or not. Which do you think is more important to identify for making policy or for understanding the world?
When the wind dies down and the sun comes out, we don’t look for the helpers anymore. However, the need is almost as dire. Millions of people in Florida need to eat every day. How does that happen? For the most part, it happens through exchange in the market.