Canadian Plastics

More than money motivates business people

A person whose intelligence I usually respect recently told me: "People who choose a career with the government do so because they want to make the world a better place." She (a person employed in the...


May 1, 2002
By Canadian Plastics

A person whose intelligence I usually respect recently told me: “People who choose a career with the government do so because they want to make the world a better place.” She (a person employed in the private sector) apparently uttered this in complete unblinking sincerity.

Of course I saw her point that some people go into certain lines of work to serve or do something they like, rather than get rich. But I strongly disagreed with the implication that people who start businesses or work for companies (you, our readers) have, at best case, fundamentally different values or, at worst case, morally inferior ones than employees of the public sector.

Her view embodied the classic false dichotomy — things are black or things are white, when often they aren’t either. This way of looking at things is sometimes useful for simplifying discussions but, left as it is, doesn’t correspond to reality. It is also not entirely innocent. People often use the false dichotomy for political purposes to assume the moral high ground, putting others on the defensive, thereby decreasing the likelihood that their views, actions or personal flaws will be intelligently scrutinized.

In truth, since taking this job I have met many dedicated, talented people in various government positions whose work is specifically forwarding the interests of this industry, and the private sector in general. That the income of many of these public servants is much higher than it would be for comparable work in the private sector may undermine the “they are only working for the good of humanity” argument of my acquaintance, but it does not justify scorn from those who make their living in the private sector.

Likewise it is hypocritical to directly or indirectly imply that the profit motive is one of the baser human instincts. I think profit is good because I believe eating and survival is a high (perhaps the highest) moral cause. I also find it uplifting that profit provides jobs and outlets for human energy, intelligence and creativity.

Moreover, most entrepreneurs and small business owners are NOT doing what they’re doing for money alone. The comments of Louis Rukeyser on this topic are enlightening. The founder and host of the successful money-as-mantra show “Wall Street Week” until his recent dismissal, Mr. Ruckeyser told the New York Times that “I never regarded money as the focus of my life; I have never … made a career decision for financial reasons.”

Like many of our readers, Ruckeyser made choices long ago — in his case going into journalism, starting a new TV talk show about money — that could not be justified by the prospect of immediate financial gain.

Indeed, money is very often way down on the list of reasons people start up businesses or work in a certain field or company. Much more important is the opportunity to fully use one’s skills, perfect a technology, build a base of clients or customers or bring a new product to market. The most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met are motivated mainly by a passion for independence and work, and a desire to fulfill their potential. Most are loathe to lay off employees, and do so only as a last measure. Many make large donations to various charities. Sure, they like to win. But in the process they often give back much more to their community and society than they have earned for themselves.

They too have made the world a better place.

Michael LeGault, editor,

e-mail: mlegault@corporate.southam.ca