"Who's John Stossel?"
That was Virgil Rosanke's reaction when "20/20" interviewed him
for one of my TV specials. Without Rosanke and others like him, I couldn't
have a steak dinner tonight, but I and most of the people he makes dinners
possible for are unknown to him. He makes our dinners possible anyway.
Is Virgil Rosanke a philanthropist? No. Is he a government
worker? Not that either. He's just a guy who delivers propane to heat water
for cattle to drink. Why does he do it? To make money.
If pursuing profit is greed, economist Walter Williams told me,
then greed is good, because it drives us to do many good things. "Those
areas where people are motivated the most by greed are the areas that we're
the most satisfied with: supermarkets, computers, FedEx." By contrast, areas
"where people say we're motivated by 'caring'" public education, public
housing etc. "are the areas of disaster in our country. . . . How much
would get done," Williams wondered, "if it all depended on human love and
Greed gets people to cooperate. If you want to benefit from
other greedy people, you have to make sure they benefit from you. Consider
one of the wonders of our age, the supermarket. There are thousands of
products on the shelves. How'd they get there?
When I posed that question about just one of those thousands of
products a piece of beef I bought for my dinner I found a trail back
to an Iowa farm. That's how I learned about Virgil Rosanke, and how he
learned about me.
We taped David Wiese and his family, farmers in Manning, Iowa,
as they put in 14-hour days fixing fences, digging ditches, harvesting hay,
and feeding the cattle. They don't do it for me and my neighbors but I'm
glad they do it.
"Do you think it's because they love people in New York?"
Williams asked. "No, they love themselves. And by promoting their own
self-interest, they make sure New Yorkers have beef."
The Wieses are just the first in a long series of people who, by
caring about themselves, make sure I get my steak. Wanda Nelson keeps the
packing house clean. Rosanke delivers propane. Other people slaughter the
cattle and butcher the beef; they rely on people who make their knives,
their overalls and their protective gear. Then there are the people who make
the plastic that seals the meat, who run the machines that do the sealing,
who pack the meat in boxes, make the boxes, inspect the boxes, and run the
freezer facilities. Still other people track orders by bar code, which means
they need the people who make the bar code machines. Eventually, packed
steak is delivered to Randall Gilbert, a truck driver, who hauls it to New
No one person made my dinner possible. It took thousands of
people to get me the food. And none of them did it for me. As economist Adam
Smith put it, "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
Rosanke and the others don't particularly care if some TV
correspondent gets his steak, yet they cooperate to make it happen,
motivated by self-interest what many call greed. Think about that next
time you listen to my colleagues sneer at the "greed" and "selfishness" of
private business. They don't realize that the institution they celebrate,
government, is far less effective at serving humanity.
"In a free market, you get more for yourself by serving your
fellow man," said economist Williams. "You don't have to care about him,
just serve him. I'd feel sorry for New Yorkers in terms of beef. If it all
depended on human love and kindness, I doubt whether you would have one cow
in New York."
Does anything get done based on "human love and kindness"? Well,
a nonprofit group called City Harvest collects donations of restaurants'
surplus food for the poor. But where does that food come from? Greedy people
like Virgil Rosanke produce it, and greedy restaurateurs buy it. Kindness
can only give away the goods self-love provides.