A lesson in profit

Addressing a joint session of Congress on health care, President Barack Obama reiterated his often-expressed aversion to the profit motive:

“[B]y avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private [health insurance] companies by profits and excessive costs and executive salaries, [the public insurance option] could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better . . .”

Is this true? Is profit wasteful, as Obama implies? Does it lead to higher prices and lower value to consumers? Can the government, unburdened by profit, do the same job as a private company, only cheaper and better?

To answer, let’s consider one business, one product, and one profit-seeking man who lived at a time when the market operated largely free of government subsidies, bailouts, regulations, taxation, and other “progressive” intrusions.

Henry Ford, at age 13, saw a steam-driven land vehicle, a “road locomotive,” which filled his imagination with the vision of a horseless carriage and fueled a passion to create one. As a young man, he worked day jobs, while trying to build a car in his free time. Realizing a viable car could not run on steam, he sought to develop a new kind of engine.

On Christmas Eve 1893, the 30-year-old inventor clamped his first gasoline engine to his wife Clara’s kitchen sink. With the home’s electricity providing ignition, the motor roared into action, sending the sink vibrating and exhaust flames flying while Clara prepared the holiday dinner.

In pursuit of his dream, Ford and Clara moved eight times in their first nine years of marriage. He quit a secure job at the Edison Illuminating Company, banking everything on his vision. He co-founded the Detroit Automobile Company—a venture that failed. Jobless, Ford moved his wife and child into his father’s home. But he kept working on his car. “It is always too soon to quit,” he said.