You can't save the world
Last year after I gave a speech at a high school in Seoul, one of the students earnestly asked me during the question-and-answer session: “How can we save the world?” My response, in short: The world doesn’t want to be saved. You’re likely to get shot in the process. Instead, why not focus on doing something practical to help even one person in your neighborhood, community or school?
I wish I had also quoted Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life."
Cynical, perhaps, but I think I wasn’t harsh enough. A lot of people in South Korea ― and I mean, from the age of 8 to 48 ― have been swept away with, “my dream is to work at the United Nations.” Others read translations of speeches by the current U.S. president, looking for clues about how they can save the world.
Back in 2008, it seemed to many people that Barack Obama could unite the world. Fast forward to 2014, even American Democrats have grown tired of him. He wanted to save the world when he can’t/couldn’t even save young hoodlums in Chicago neighborhoods from gunning each other down. He came in talking about lowering the sea levels, but he is now drowning in a sea of criticism.
When I talk to young people and other would-be world-savers, I suggest that they refocus. Instead of going into politics to advocate for the homeless or some other cause, I recommend that they go into business or become developers so they can actually build housing for the poor. I’ve met plenty of educators and activists who say they want to save the “public school system,” even without a track record of saving even one school. If you can’t convince one school to adopt your ideas, then why try to grab the reins of an entire system to inflict your ideas? It makes more sense to create actual options to let people find what works for them rather than saving them with your plans.
Many talkers are glorified for their eloquence, but words don’t lay cement. I meet many well-intentioned people who advocate for raising the minimum wage but have never employed people. Even worse, such world-savers get lauded in the media for their proposals while the people who raise money, start or expand a business, and employ many people get denounced for being greedy or for allegedly underpaying people. The bigger the business, the more criticism it can expect. The world-saving talkers get more praise than the people actually carrying a small piece of the world on their shoulders.
It sounds like lunacy to the world-savers, but probably the best thing a person can do is to make the world a slightly more tolerable place. Not all world-savers are terrible, some have a positive impact. Some focus on their own lives, do practical things for others, or come up with nice ideas that people can use to better themselves.
I’m dismissing those who want the save the world by getting the world to do what they want it to do. In the world-saving scenarios, the ending is never “the policies I oppose will become more widespread.” In order to save the world, the energetic ones who can’t leave others alone need political power― the more, the better. Even the current U.S. president, thought to be the most powerful person in the world, complains that he can’t get his agenda to “remake America” past those pesky Republicans. Apparently, the world has more sense than the world-savers expected.
Perhaps it is experience. As Isabel Paterson wrote in 1943: “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse or omission.” In contrast, most of the good in the world is done by people going about the business of helping themselves, as Adam Smith noted back in 1776, with no particular desire to save the world. The eloquent talkers are admired, but people don’t call them when they need a plumber.
Today I am scheduled to speak about leadership at a camp for high school kids. I now expect the “how can we save the world” question. In response, I typically ask students what they would do as head of a world government with unlimited power.
I expect the same flurry of ideas that I hear from young people eager to save the world from itself. Very few talk about going into business to make their ideas happen. None has ever answered, as economist Ludwig von Mises did when asked what he would do as dictator of the United States: “I would abdicate.”