I had quite a time on my way to work this morning. My friend came and picked me up like normal (I’ve been working in a warehouse with him doing electronics assembly while I work out my upcoming Praxis apprenticeship), though he was running a little late. As we headed down the freeway, my friend spotted a kitten huddled up between the right lane and the merging lane of an on-ramp. As we continued toward our exit, he asked “Do you think we should go back and help it?”
“Yeah. I think we should. My conscience will haunt me all day if we don’t.”
So, we took the next exit and circled back to the on-ramp where the poor thing was first spotted. We turned on our hazard lights and positioned ourselves in the narrow triangle between the two lanes of merging, 80+mph traffic. I impatiently waited for a space between passing cars to toss open the door and approach the animal, which had curled up in apparent defeat in its sad situation. I slowly approached and reached my hands out, suddenly realized I had made a false assumption. I had supposed that the tiny cat would be overjoyed at the prospect of rescue, practically jumping into my arms and purring as I heroically walked back to the car, perhaps to the applause of commuters who had stopped their vehicles on the shoulder to watch this touching scene.
That’s not at all what happened.
As I reached out to grab the helpless kitty, he hissed at me, sprang up with tail fully erect and bushed, and darted straight for oncoming traffic. I shouted a dramatic ‘NOOOOOOOOOooooo!!!’ while tensing every muscle in my body, watching helplessly as two cars slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting the gray blur darting about the asphalt. Suddenly realizing his mistake, he overcorrected, dashing across the safe white-paint triangle between lanes and causing a similar scene on the on-ramp. A white car screeched to a halt, a silver sedan almost rear-ending it, as the cat did a dangerous tango with its tires. I waved my thanks and apologies to the driver as I myself ran across two lanes to the opposite shoulder in hot pursuit. The kitten tried repeatedly in vain to scale the concrete barrier, comically able only to jump about 1/25th of the required height. Seeing me gaining on him, he took off down the shoulder. At this point I hoped that I could either catch him or keep him from running back up to the freeway and guide him into the nearby neighborhood.
Fortunately, he attempted to run across a storm drain and found that his little legs dropped uselessly between the grates, rendering him stuck. Again, any naive hope I had harbored about this cat showing any gratitude toward me for saving him was quickly dashed, as he hissed, clawed, and bit at me. Fortunately, having grown up in a house with a cat, I knew that all models come standard with and off switch- activated by pulling at the scruff of the neck. With the cat now paralyzed in my hands, I was able to get back in the car. We went straight to the warehouse where we work to inform the boss about why we were so late and also to get a box to hold the kitten while we took it to the nearest shelter.
As I thought about this experience throughout the day, I couldn’t help but feel glad that we had gone back to save this helpless kitten. Had we just gone to work, I would have been haunted with the idea that I had no way to know what happened in the end to that little gray kitten. Even with all the trouble I went through, it was worth it.
Those who promote entrepreneurship and espouse free-market economics are often dismissed by those of a more collectivist persuasion as being motivated only by profit.
They’re totally right. And this experience this morning proves it.
But, how can that be? Shouldn’t this be regarded as an example of altruism? Of risk being taken to fulfill a sense of duty- of doing what’s right without monetary reward?
Absolutely. But it’s totally motivated by personal gain. In every step I took to save that cat, I was seeking profit. And I was fortunate enough to find that I had acted successfully toward that end.
Profit isn’t money
Sure, money made in an entrepreneurial venture that exceeds the investment in overhead is profit, but not all profit is measured in dollars and cents. Profit, more broadly defined, is any net improvement to one’s situation- based on that individual’s subjective values.
In 1949, the great Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises wrote his magnum opus, Human Action, a treatise that draws out the big ideas of economics from a single premise: human beings act. That’s a self- existing fact. To refute human action would be to perform a human action. History, to Mises, is the study of human action in time. Economics, on the other hand, is the study of human action in the face of scarcity. Here’s what he had to say:
“We call contentment or satisfaction that state of human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.” — Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action, Scholar’s Edition, p. 13 (emphasis added)
So, all human action is motivated by the belief that this action will bring about a future more favorable than the present. This is why we breathe, scratch an itch, and exchange an apple for an orange at the lunch table. This is not to say that all action is profitable in the end- we’re human, and with our humanity comes a tendency to misjudge- but all action at least seeks to be profitable.
So it was this morning with the kitten. I found myself facing a situation that made me uneasy- there was a kitten in the middle of the freeway. I felt convinced that my intervention would end my unease, so I acted. In the end, my belief turned out to be true- my action did lead to a more preferable future.
I preferred a world where this kitten was at a shelter rather than in the road; I brought together my mind, action, and resources; and ultimately succeeded in improving the situation. I had made a profit. Every action we take each moment of each day is an act of entrepreneurship. It’s a risk taken in the hope that an improved end could be reached. I saved that cat as an act of moral duty, and in my success, I made a profit.