Just Do Good

It’s certainly easy and natural to boo-hoo the do-gooders who lament the state of their profession:

But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington’s public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck. …
Numerous young Washingtonians bemoan the improvisational and protracted career track of the area’s public interest profession. They say the high competition for comparatively low-paying jobs saps their sense of adulthood, forcing them to spend their 20s or early 30s moving from college to work to graduate school and back to work that might or might not be temporary. …
Even though premium NGO jobs have always been relatively scarce, more people seem to be angling for that world. The number of international affairs grad school applicants to Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and George Washington universities rose 63 percent in the five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, compared with the total from the previous five years, data from the schools show. Enrollment in the programs increased more than 30 percent in the five years after the attacks, and the percentage of applicants admitted declined.
Those who graduate from the prestigious schools often start with a salary comparable to the annual tuition. …
Young people maneuvering within the NGO landscape say an odd feeling settles in by the time they are ready to start a job: They feel “old,” but they don’t truly feel like adults because they earn modest salaries and have limited responsibilities. Galston’s study reported that about 30 percent of those in their late 20s and early 30s had mixed views on whether they had reached adulthood.

My first reaction is to advise readers to remember this perpetually stagnant industry whenever people from within the do-gooder profession push for more funding. The targets of their advocacy aside, there are young professionals with advanced degrees out there looking for work on the public dime.
That said, one hesitates to fall too far into an opposing camp, as arguably represented by the Instapundit-linked Rand Simberg:

… their fundamental premise is flawed. Who is it that really changes the world, and for the better?
I would argue that it is the people like Bill Gates, or Henry Ford, or Thomas Edison, or the Wright brothers, who have a much larger and more beneficial effect on the world than people who “want to make a difference.”
Who is more of a humanitarian, a Norman Borlaug, who through his technological efforts saved untold millions from hunger, and even starvation, and was reasonably compensated for it, or an Albert Schweitzer or Mother Theresa, who labored to help a relatively few poor and ill, while living in relative poverty?

In order for Simberg’s view to obtain, humanitarianism must be measured by the success of stars in their fields, with a linear gauge. We can name the world-changing inventors and developers because they are few in number. Chasing the dream of them — whether for material or moral gain — will fall out as failure for most who seek to do good in direct correlation with their managing to do well. Mother Theresa’s docket of humanitarian accomplishments doesn’t end with the “relatively few poor and ill” whom she directly touched; she also inspired others; she also taught an even broader segment of society that it doesn’t take a big idea or a big fortune to make a difference.
Of course, Simberg could counter that Bill Gates inspires, and that the achievements of those whom he inspires count toward his tally, as well. And I would point out that we’ve merely moved into the range of the exchange at which its foolishness becomes apparent. It’s a ridiculous endeavor (tending toward validation of one’s own proclivities) to place upon the scales those with different modes of humanitarianism.
Really, the goal ought to be to do good no matter what, or how well, one does; that is a possibility open to everybody whose pursuits are not intrinsically evil. As a control on that dictum, however, I’d speculate that Simberg and I would come ’round to full agreement that there are risks when one sets out simply to “do good,” with no specifics in mind: Just as it is possible to choose misery-making careers because they’ve received society’s “Success” stamp, it is an especial pitfall of our age that certain causes bear the label of “Humanitarian” without respect to how much good they accomplish in the end.

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