Those Who Do Well for Themselves Do Well for Society

Those Who Do Well for Themselves Do Well for Society
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Every year for the last 40 years of his life, Earl Bakken received a letter from a man he never met, Ron Brown of Nashville, updating Bakken on his life. It may seem odd that Brown would put so much effort into keeping Bakken informed, until you consider one thing: The reason Brown has lived so long is probably because Bakken invented the battery-powered pacemaker in the late 1940s, which doctors implanted in Brown in 1977.

Bakken, an engineer turned entrepreneur, died just a few days ago, but he serves as an excellent example of how doing good for society and doing well economically are often intricately linked. The pacemaker Bakken invented, and the company he founded - Medtronic - have saved many, many lives. In the process, they have created a great deal of wealth and made tons of money for the company’s founder and investors. Now, every three seconds a Medtronic product helps someone, somewhere in the world.

Regardless of the other factors that motivated Bakken - the desire to help people, the love of science and discovery, a natural inclination to electronics - the development of the pacemaker demonstrates the capacity of the free market to give people the opportunity to do good as it also gives them the opportunity to do well.

One cannot say that a desire to generate wealth was the only reason - or even the principal reason - that Bakken invented the pacemaker. But what one can say with certainty is that without the free market, the pacemaker would not have saved anywhere near the number of lives it has.

Medtronic’s ability to continually improve the pacemaker has been possible because of the capital it has raised. The company’s $50-billion market cap serves as a reminder that the drive for increased wealth powers the markets, and makes possible virtually all material good works - including Medtronic products such as diagnostic and monitoring devices to track cardio rhythm diseases, spinal implants, drug delivery systems to relieve chronic pain, practical surgical technologies, and a special x-Ray system known as the O-arm. It also provides jobs at Medtronic for over 90,000 people in over 140 countries.

Bakken built the battery-powered pacemaker at the request of a physician friend following the death of a child during a power failure. One cannot say that the profit motive drove him to do it. After all, he began developing electrical products when he was four years old, including a taser-like device to fend off bullies — but one can say with certainty that it allowed him to raise the capital to continue his work.

The free market has saved billions of lives, by making possible medical technologies and equipment from syringes and disposable gloves to the Cathode ray oscilloscope to medical imaging machines, infusion pumps, medical lasers, life support systems, the Petri dish, microscope, and ultra centrifuge. And the free market is possible only because of capitalism and it’s related profit motive.

Bakken did good for society. But he also did well for himself. The two goals are related, and hard to separate. The good news is that under free market capitalism, there is no need to separate them. They work in tandem.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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