© 2003 Karen Selick
Profit’s Not a Dirty Word

An edited version of this article first appeared in the September 4, 2003 issue of The Financial Post.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Profit’s Not a Dirty Word

"Four legs good, two legs bad," chanted the sheep in Orwell’s 1945 satire Animal Farm. In Canada today, the sheep are still chanting, but the words have changed slightly: "Non-profit good, profit bad."

Take medicare, for instance. The Romanow report recommended shoveling billions into public health care facilities and nixed the idea of more private facilities.  Soon some group was running radio ads bleating that we’ve got to "stop the slide into for-profit health care."  

Then there are the child care lobbyists, who got another few minutes in the sun recently when the government re-announced its planned national child care program. These folks are forever lauding non-profit day care centers and bad-mouthing private ones--often even insinuating that private centers are unsafe for kids.

Here’s another example. When a furor erupted over the fact that an Ontario prison run by a private company was recording inmates’ race along with hair and eye colour on their identity tags, one critic called it "a perfect example of why leaving our jails up to private interests guarantees all kind of injustices." Baaad, baaad.

Like Orwell’s animals, Canada’s sheep seem to have mentally divided the world into two distinct groups. Everyone who works for a profit is a greedy, money-grubbing, corner-cutting, cheat-his-own-grandma sleazebag, while everyone employed by a non-profit institution is a conscientious, selfless, caring, sharing saint.

Here’s my question to these true believers: just where do your suppose the non-profit institutions find these shmoo-like creatures to work in their organizations? Do you imagine they breed ‘em themselves, or what?

The answer, of course, is that the employees of non-profit institutions are selected from the same mixed bag of humanity as the owners and employees of profit-making ventures. Whether they be teachers, nurses, day care workers or prison guards, they exhibit self-centredness, greed, laziness, dishonesty and venality in roughly the same proportions as the rest of the population.  

In fact, every single employee of a non-profit institution is actually a "profit center" in himself. He has certain basic expenses he must incur in order to work—food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and perhaps tools or training. He tries to minimize these expenses by shopping around. He tries to increase his revenue (his wages) by seeking raises, promotions or a better job. His financial goal is to maximize the gap between revenues and expenses so there’ll be as much money as possible left over for luxuries, hobbies, vacations or whatever else he finds rewarding in life. This is his profit.  

Kira Heineck and Cheryl DeGras of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care wrote recently in The Toronto Star: "Not-for-profit [child] care is almost always of higher quality than commercial care. Simply put, this is because all available resources are used for delivering care, instead of setting aside some for profit."

This is typical of the mindset of non-profit advocates. They seem to think of a privately owned enterprise as a bottle of unprocessed milk, with a layer of cream called "profit" floating on top of the skim milk called "overhead".

In reality, every enterprise, private or "non-profit", is more like a bottle of homogenized milk. The cream is commingled throughout the entire bottle. From top to bottom of the organization, every individual’s personal goal is to procure his own profit. So while Ms. Heineck and Ms. DeGras may like to think that non-profit child care funds are being used to "deliver care", in actuality a portion of them are being used to deliver profits—i.e. income beyond the necessary expenses of being employed—to the organization’s employees.  

A study published by the Fraser Institute compared the wages being paid to non-profit sector hospital workers  and for-profit sector hotel workers in British Columbia. The jobs compared required no specific medical knowledge. The employees in both groups were unionized. The table (sidebar) suggests what happens when you eliminate the profit that would otherwise go to an entrepreneur: it gets divvied up among employees at other levels in the enterprise instead.  

Worker Type
Hospital Hourly Wage
Average Hotel Hourly Wage
Premium (%)
Housekeeping Aide
Payroll Clerk
Food Service Worker
Cook 1
Cook (Baker)
Maintenance Worker
Switchboard Operator
Booking Clerk
      Source:  The Fraser Institute, Fraser Forum, January 2002, page 32

When a non-profit enterprise gets its funding from government (as most do), no-one within the organization has any incentive to control costs.  On the contrary, all employees have the same incentive: to increase their own profits, by demanding higher wages and more tax dollars.
In a private business, the entrepreneur’s desire for profits actually serves an extremely useful function: it provides the incentive to look for the most efficient way to do things.  If the owner can keep expenses down by finding cheaper sources of inputs, or by inventing an entirely new and more economical method of producing the same finished product, he gets to pocket the difference. This is a benefit not only to him, but to society at large. The fewer resources that are consumed in making one product, the more resources are available for use elsewhere.  

Critics contend that the profit motive leads to corner-cutting and shoddy output. They forget that where competition is permitted, entrepreneurs can’t get rich by cutting costs alone. They also have to fight for market share, which means they  have to make the best possible product at the lowest possible cost.  

Consider: health care in Canada—an industry that is almost entirely non-profit--is getting ever more expensive and ever more deficient. Computers in Canada—produced by a for-profit industry—are getting ever cheaper and ever better.    

Wise up, sheep. Profit’s not a dirty word, and non-profit enterprises are just a figment of your imagination.

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September 22, 2003