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Make a Difference Day

December 21, 2004

"Make a Difference Day" (also known as the "National Day of Doing Good") was on October 23. I confess to not knowing about the "day" until it was over. Nor did I know that it's been an annual event on the fourth Saturday in October since 1992.   

USA Weekend magazine, a Gannett Co., Inc. entity, and Points of Light Foundation co-sponsor the event.

I learned about "Make a Difference Day" from an insert in my October electricity bill from American Electric Power (AEP). The insert explained that  

". . . more than 3 million people will observe this national day of doing good by engaging in projects large and small in towns across America . . . projects that will benefit children, families, the elderly, neighborhoods and entire communities."   

AEP took pains to point out that its employees "make a difference" throughout the year, not just on the fourth Saturday in October. As the insert put it,    

"AEP employees and its retirees are among those who will be making a difference on this special day, often in addition to the many other activities they do throughout the year to support and play an active, positive role in the communities where they live and work."

Was AEP boasting about its employees' contributions during their eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and fifty-week years?  C'mon, get serious. It's what AEP people do outside the marketplace that counts for the "doing good" crowd. Getting paid to produce something doesn't make you a difference maker as far as these people are concerned.

The mind-set that one cannot do good while doing well does not originate with AEP. It saturates media culture, colleges and universities (including business schools!), and church pulpits. So what about the millions upon millions of eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and fifty-week years that people put in on the job?  Do they matter? 

Not exactly, intone pundits, professors, and preachers. The best that can be said for our jobs is that they provide income, freeing us to do those other, nobler things that "make a difference."  You know, things like volunteering our Saturday mornings to refurbish swings, slides, and see-saws at the local public park. Psssst—this means that those who originally produced and sold the swings weren't difference makers.

But let's get back to AEP and its employees. What about the electricity that results from their eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and fifty-week years?  More pointedly, what about the medical procedures, life-saving and otherwise, that take place in hospitals powered by AEP electricity?  Does that electricity "make a difference?"  Not for pundits, professors and pastors. They're too busy celebrating what AEP employees do when they're not producing electricity.

So what's the pundits, professors, and pastors' hang-up?  It's commercialism, the marketplace, whatever you want to call it. Ugh, hospitals buy electricity. Ugh, AEP sells electricity. Double ugh, buyers buy primarily to better themselves. Another double ugh, sellers sell primarily to better themselves. For these self-appointed bearers of the national conscience, such buyer/seller behavior draws the line between the noble and the ignoble, sullying those eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and fifty-week years.

What about the fact that self-serving buyers don't find sellers unless they offer terms that benefit sellers? Likewise, what about the fact that self-serving sellers don't find buyers unless they offer terms that benefit buyers?  Indeed, regardless of buyers' and sellers' "heart-attitudes," the marketplace forces them to act as if they cared about those with whom they're dealing. And, what about the fact that marketplace transactions often end with buyers and sellers exchanging reciprocal thank-you's? Whoops, none of this matters when thinking stops with platitudes about commercialism.  

Notwithstanding this head-in-the-sand posturing, the most important difference making Americans ever encounter, hands down, no questions asked, occurs day in and day out in the marketplace. It's not just AEP electricity going to hospitals. Nor is it that AEP electricity enriches its customers' lives in countless other ways. Nor is it that there are many other producers of electricity. It's that the American marketplace generates prodigious amounts of housing, food, clothing, transportation, energy, and education among other things (including electricity). Those who produce all these "things" make huge differences in Americans' lives. Is it an overstatement to say this latter difference making dwarfs anything that occurs on the fourth Saturday in October? Not at all!    

What would you say if a tour guide leading you through the Rocky Mountains constantly pointed out roadside ant hills?  Out of touch?  Probably. So it is with those who exalt fourth-Saturday-in-October events. Surrounded by marketplace difference making on a scale never before known in human history, they celebrate a Saturday afternoon spent refurbishing park swings, slides, and see-saws. Out of touch?  Without a doubt.

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T. Norman Van Cott is a professor of economics at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive. Post comments on the blog.


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