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To profit or not to profit?

Monday, 5 February 2018  | Hannah Weickhardt

Is working for the profit-motivated sector any less moral than working for the not-for-profit sector? When I was asked this question as an Economics and Finance Graduate, I realised immediately its probable implications for my entire career. If I were seeking to ameliorate human suffering in society, what was the best road to take?

At the outset, I had barely considered whether there was a moral purpose to the multiple pathways I could take upon completion of my Bachelor degree in 2012. All I saw before me was working in the private sector in the area of finance or entering the public service. My only desire was to make a living by applying myself to the university pathway I had chosen.

My first attempt at landing a ‘job in the field’ at the beginning of 2013 was unsuccessful. I was instead offered a scholarship with a residential, three-month programme designed for Christians seeking to make a difference in Australian public life. Through the experiences offered by this internship - the intense reading in a range of different disciplines, prodigious Socrates-style teaching by lecturers, thought-provoking discussion and debates, and visiting for-profit and not-for-profit organisations - I began to consider the pros and cons of working in the for-profit versus not-for-profit sectors as a Christian.

As I continued my reading after the completion of the internship, my understanding of the moral issues around the differences between the for-profit versus not-for-profit deepened. Long-held views were challenged and new ones slowly began to form. Here are some of the thought-provoking readings I came across.

The prominent thinker, John Meadowcroft, a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at King’s College London, brought to light how morality, and more specifically altruism, could be ‘efficaciously pursued’ in the private sector. He outlined how prices have the ability to communicate information about the needs, wants and preferences of other individuals in the market, enabling deeper judgements relating to the costs and benefits of our actions. He argued that prices provide an indicator for altruistic ends to better materialise, as they indicate whether the benefits of our actions exceed costs.

In ‘Bill Gates’s Charitable Vistas’ (Wall Street Journal, June 2007), Robert Barro, a classical macroeconomist at Harvard University, wrote of Gates’ desire to give back to society. He highlighted the social value that Microsoft has contributed over the years through productivity benefits to consumers. In addition, he argued that, by running a for-profit (private) organisation, Bill Gates has added more value to society than personal philanthropic efforts will ever be able to do.

A book entitled Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973), written by the German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher, articulated conclusively how economics, work and ethics can be, and indeed are, deeply interconnected. In this day and age when capitalism is upheld by first world countries as the ideal system, Schumacher argues that work can be a fulfilling experience, whatever economic system you are in. By advocating for smaller scale and sustainable production, and the sensible use of technology, appreciating, acknowledging and integrating human needs and limitations is actually possible. The deeper needs of humanity can be more than sufficiently met, along with necessary material provisions and a sense of fulfilment through completing tasks.

From these and other readings, I understood that the price mechanism in the private sector provides a means of altruism; that social benefits could be created by a for-profit firm; and that, most important of all, there is still a deep interrelation between work undertaken by humans and human flourishing, regardless of the sector.

As I completed a Master of Economic Policy, where I was able to learn further the practical applications of economics, primarily in the public sector, these thoughts were still at the forefront of my mind. As I encountered people in both sectors thinking through some of these same issues, the common factor seemed to be the acknowledgement of the value of humans in a changing world. Certainly, working in the for-profit sector is driven primarily by the desire to meet immediate wants and desires, whereas the not-for-profit sector is driven primarily by the desire to help others. However, both sectors seek to promote human flourishing.

As somebody who wants to be a constructive mover in a dynamic society, the choice between the for-profit versus not-for-profit sectors seems to me a very personal one. Jesus did not endorse one sector over the other. What is of importance to the Christian is that their economic endeavour is honest and always directed towards the best interests of their neighbour

I’m currently engaged in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. In my work with Philip Norman and Associates, I am involved in developing the infrastructure for the future of Australia. This role provides numerous opportunities to humbly consider the needs of those around me and to best serve my neighbour as I consider the impact of various infrastructure options. In my work with Missionheart, I am striving to build relationships through which people can see the love of Christ in action. This may appear altruistic, but it can be tainted by a sense of self-importance and pride. What is common to both roles is that I have the opportunity to improve society.

Hannah Weickhardt is an inadvertent adherent to the discipline of Economics after being given a book as a home-schooled Year 9 which made very little sense at the time. In her determination to make sense of it, she took up the study of Economics, completing two university degrees, and has combined this with general reading and deeper reflections on life and how we live it.


Ian Hore-Lacy
February 10, 2018, 9:51PM
Some very worthwhile reflections! Wealth creation is fundamental, and is why we enjoy a higher material standard of living with all sorts of infrastructure taken for granted, than our forebears. It is a virtuous endeavour to be engaged in that, in whatever sector, if one assumes that God has the welfare of people and the minimising of poverty as a priority.

In 1985 my book Creating Common Wealth was published by Albatross to argue this more fully in the face of much Christian preoccupation with redistributing other people's wealth.

Ian Harper is currently a major exponent of economics for Christian consideration.
Janet Mitchell
February 11, 2018, 6:44PM
Hannah, this is a beautiful, well-composed article. I am wondering if you have read John Milbank's 'Can morality be Christian?'. By the way he answers with a resounding 'no' and then goes onto explain. He has also written a subsequent article: 'The Midwinter Sacrifice: A sequel to 'can morality be Christian?'. I endorse a previous comment that refers to Ian Harper.
Philip Norman
February 11, 2018, 7:49PM
Lovely thoughts thanks Hannah.

People can make wonderful contributions in both the not-for profit and for profit sectors. Sometimes both.

Possibly the for-profits are more transparent and accountable. Empire builders rise to public view and their pays are public and also visible to the tax office. Results for listed companies are published quarterly and scrutinised by all.

Not for profits have a cloak of respectability and reduced reporting requirements that can hide said empire builders from public scrutiny.

Adam Smith's invisible hand helps via the price mechanism to allocate resources, including labour, where they can best contribute.

Lucky for all of us that you read economics in Year 9.

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