In a free society, there is a constant tension between people and government due to a supposed causality dilemma. That dilemma revolves around two conditions that are the same and yet different at the same time. They are akin to two planets, spaced equidistant from each other in the same orbit, furiously circumnavigating the same incendiary celestial orb and like an orbit in balance, each of these two virtual homophones of liberty is necessary for the existence of the other. The two of which I write are the conditions of self-determination and self-reliance. These are also synonyms for the conditions of Natural Law called freedom and independence.
Which comes first? Which begets the other? Are we able to determine our own fates because we are self-reliant (independent) or is our independence a result of our ability to decide for ourselves that a path?
Roughly fifteen years ago, I achieved a career milestone as I climbed over the hurdle to become part of what is termed “senior divisional management” – about two ladder rungs above site operational leadership and the same two rungs below the “C-Suite” (COO, CEO, CFO, etc.). I have also become known as a bit of a “fixer” – I have been tasked with managing businesses that are having difficulty or that just need a little push to start achieving at a higher level. I’ve been very fortunate to work with teams of people in the past several years that have been receptive to my leadership and have in turn helped to achieve the two greatest year-over-year “turn-arounds” in the history of my career. In the first, we were able to maneuver from a $10.6 million loss to a $2.8 million positive and the other from a $3.2 million loss to an $11.3 million profit, swings of $13.4 and $14.5 million respectively.
These two changes have come in separate geographical locations but in very similar businesses and similar market conditions – making a direct comparison and contrast possible – but when it comes to people, they also came about by very different means.
I am a proponent of the theory that states that most often when organizations are under-performing; it is usually because there is an absence of good leadership, not an absence of good people. In my 30 years in organizations, large and small, I have rarely come across systems populated by bad people determined to do bad things. What I do see are organizations where people are victims of their management in that:
- Management puts the wrong people in the wrong jobs – their skills are unsuited for their task, their personalities are a poor match for the interactions necessary to be successful or they have been selected for all the wrong reasons (being the company’s brightest engineer will NOT guarantee that you will be the best manager – most times NOT)
- Management has too much patience with the underachievers and trouble makers –often the people who are the most difficult to deal with are the ones who, because of experience, special knowledge or perceived value to the company have achieved a perceived Teflon coating. These are often the people who are seen as being people the company can least afford to lose – but often are the biggest roadblocks to forward progress.
- Management does not allow understanding of the actual goal
- Management counts too much on their own brilliance, never harnessing the intellectual power of the larger group and never allowing the freedom for the group to grow and gain confidence.
As I said, similar situations but two distinctly different approaches – in one, I had to replace several senior level site managers because they were not right for the positions or the direction that was necessary for us to take, in the second – not a single manager was replaced. We simply assessed where the best skill fits were and shifted leadership responsibilities accordingly – both approaches yielded positive results.
When I look at the commonality of success between these two situations there is one theme that emerges – the change in the businesses would have been impossible without the emergence of two factors:
- The confidence built on self-reliance, and
- The independence to make their own decisions about their areas of responsibility.
As a senior level executive, one of my major responsibilities is to assure that the organization can live on without me. The very first job that I do in any situation is to immediately start looking for my successor, working to answer the “If you get hit by a bus tomorrow, who leads the organization?” question.
To hold my position in any company, one has to be comfortable with self-determination and self-reliance – because for most of the time you are working without a net. When one manages international activities, one cannot call his or her boss for a decision – because many times the time zones prevent immediate communication and many situations require immediate answers. Managerial self reliance and self-determination are both essential and necessary in such a role.
That is why I look for – and work hard to cultivate – these two characteristics of leadership and also why I found some recent comments by our President quite troubling. Last week, ABC reported (via Bruce McQuain at The Conservatory):
At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.
“The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own,’” Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.
“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”
Obama and Democrats have been emphasizing what they see as the costly consequences of the Republicans’ agenda in an effort to stir up support, in part by touching on emotional nerves.
Think on these for just a minute:
- “…a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.”
- “…you are on your own…”
- “…an effort to stir up support, in part by touching on emotional nerves.”
If there is nothing else that crystallizes the differences between “progressives” and classical liberals, this should be the defining text. When the elected official to the highest office in the country uses the term “self-reliance” as a pejorative, it is clear that he does not understand the foundation that this country was built on.
I happened to run across this column in the City Journal by a former Time magazine editor, Stefan Kanfer. Kanfer is hardly taking Obama to task; he seems to be a good, card carrying “progressive” and as such is condemning ABC for “misreading” Obama’s speech – but in his condemnation of ABC and his defense of the President, he arrives at the truth, albeit via a circuitous route:
“A few paragraphs separated by nearly two centuries chart a downhill slalom from liberty to dependency. First, here’s Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “The education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”
The term was not always viewed that way, as Emerson’s lauding of self-sufficiency in his 1841 essay shows. The ensuing decade proved the value of Emerson’s economic and moral philosophy. Some examples:
- The explorer Captain Charles Wilkes circumnavigated the continent and claimed Antarctica for the United States.
- The Supreme Court declared that in the case of the slave ship Amistad, Africans who had taken control of the vessel had been bound into slavery illegally.
- The first wagon train left for California from Independence, Missouri. The journey took seven hard months.
- Edgar Allan Poe began publishing his short stories.
- Horace Greeley founded the first great American newspaper, the New York Tribune.
- Samuel F. B. Morse sent out a message over the first telegraph line: “What hath God wrought?”
- The patent for vulcanization, a process that strengthened rubber, was granted to Charles Goodyear.
- Elias Howe invented the sewing machine.
- The American Medical Association was founded in Philadelphia.
- Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical-school degree.
In this accounting, Kanfer finds the golden nugget among the rocks in the riverbed:
None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the quality of individual autonomy. None of these history-makers was seeking a federal handout; none was looking for guarantees in the pursuit of unprecedented goals. In their slipstream would come a parade of individuals who owed their success to self-reliance—from Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh to John F. Kennedy, the Apollo astronauts, and those supremely independent garage-tinkerers, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. For them, as for most Americans, self-reliance was seen as a virtue, not a liability, a characteristic worth promoting, not denigrating.
In the new millennium, safety nets abound, from Social Security to unemployment insurance. But these entitlements are meant to reinforce individuality by giving U.S. citizens freedom from catastrophic financial worries. They are not meant to encourage the seeking of ever more handouts, ever more dependence on cash-strapped federal and state governments.
Then in validation of the antecedent of the Law of Diminishing Liberal Intelligence, which states:
If a liberal hasn’t said something illogical, self-contradictory, physically or financially impossible, historically inaccurate or just outright stupid, you just haven’t listened to them long enough…
…so of course, Kanfer keeps on writing:
If the folks at ABC are ever to understand the country they fly over, they would be well advised to stop misreading speeches and get back to some basic American literature. They might start with the great Transcendentalist and abolitionist who knew all about the “wicked dollar” and how, left unchallenged, it could lead to economic and moral serfdom.
One paragraph too many…”missed it by thaaaaat much“…should have stopped one paragraph sooner.
Kanfer is the one who is “misreading” Obama’s speech. Actually, he is trying to “reinterpret” the words that come directly from the President’s mouth. Combined with his policies of bigger and more intrusive government, greater taxes and spending, involvement and control over larger and larger sectors of the economy, federal ownership in industry, partnership with labor unions and the expansion of the welfare state the meaning of his words are quite clear. When he says:
“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said.
His meaning is clear- as are his goals and those of his Party.
With respect to the causality dilemma questions of:
- Which comes first?
- Which begets the other?
- Are we able to determine our own fates because we are self-reliant (independent) or is our independence a result of our ability to decide for ourselves that a path?
Having observed organizational dynamics in my own experiences and after a great deal of reflection, my answer to all three questions is this: there is no true causality dilemma because both conditions must exist in parallel in order for the American experiment in liberty to exist. There can be no self-reliance without self-determination and no self-determination absent of self-reliance. There is a direct relationship between the two.
If one is diminished, the other is as well.
Humans are born with the ability to be self-reliant. Natural law prescribes this in the very DNA of our being, the drive to survive is resident in every living thing – to fight or flee, to live or die and to procreate – all are part of the circle of life.
The difference is that humans have the capacity to choose how they accomplish their survival. Where the members of the animal kingdom must accept the conditions of their existence, humans do not.
Humans can change their environment -they can alter the very landscape of the Earth by harnessing the power of mighty rivers, increasing the agricultural output of the land by making the infertile fertile, inventing labor saving devices and even taming the physical world at the atomic level. They can choose where and how to live by constructing governments among themselves to provide a better chance of survival under their own terms.
While by the grace of God and the Constitution of the United States of America, this is still possible – Americans can have self-reliance and self-determination bred out of them. In our self-satisfied world of fully stocked grocery stores on every corner, 500 cable channels where a competitive eating contest on ESPN 8 can have a higher rating than a political debate, where cities experience riots after the city’s sports team WINS a major championship and college football fans and students protest in support of a long time coach who is alleged to have ignored multiple incidents of child sex abuse by one of his staff *, it is obvious to me that we can (and are) becoming the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Of course we aren’t the actual foodstuff for the Morlocks as Wells anticipated in his novel, but we are the political food source for the political Morlocks in government, metaphorical fodder for their sustenance – for it is not flesh that they demand, it is the fruits of our labor and by extension, our ability to determine our own future.
By continuing to command more and more aspects of American life, the political Morlocks are stripping us of our freedom and independence just as surely as if we were roasted to a tender medium-rare and consumed bite by bite with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
* It must be noted that far from being an enemy of sport, last weekend I was up all night here in Edinburgh just so I could watch the Alabama/LSU game on ESPN America…