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In our contemporary existence, we live in the shadows of monolithic institutions, particularly political and economic institutions. We feel small, insignificant – outraged, perhaps, but nevertheless with a sinking feeling we are simply yelling at the walls that surround those institutions.

It was never supposed to be this way. Humans existed long before heavily centralized institutions came into view. And when more than one individual gathered, so did society. Government and the economy emerged only when we humans needed a) an impartial third party to sort out disputes between us and b) to create mutually agreeable arrangements by which we could meet our needs.

But as history moved forward, political and economic institutions grew, and eventually displaced the individual and society. Political institutions have always been problematic, since they attract the emotionally immature individual who desires power: Power attracts attention.

Economic institutions became problematic more recently in human history, when the industrial revolutions of the 19th century took a formerly decentralized form of capitalism and made it heavily centralized. The economic institutions that emerged also attracted the emotionally immature individual who desires power since, as we know, power attracts attention.

So now we have a bunch of emotionally immature individuals running the world. Here’s the background on this assertion.

What unfolds in much of American society is not brutish, animalistic survival as much as childish bravado. Armchair warriors command our corporations and government. Such leaders swagger and swear in offices and boardrooms and manipulate others around them like a chess game. They find an outlet for their competitiveness not only in the marketplace, but also challenge their peers in rounds of golf, racketball matches or, in the case of Enron’s management, dirt bike outings over the weekend.

They are boys and girls who dress like men and women, cut off from parental figures at a young age, working out their emptiness on the public stage. Undisciplined emotionally, they understand no boundaries, and share no sense of responsibilities towards their fellow employees or citizens. Acting on their adolescence while in positions of major importance, they wreck the lives of millions. Playing out delusions of self importance, they take their cues from Howard Roark or John Galt, pulled out of the pages of a Ayn Rand novel. They are socially independent to a fault, beholden to no one and no community for their actions.

The hubristic attitudes of these individuals shows through in the media. Witness the bluster of bank presidents indicating their wish to pay back TARP funds to the government due to the executive compensation (a.k.a., “bonuses”) restrictions within the TARP program, the resignation of two of AIG’s top managers in Paris amid the flap over bonuses, FedEx’s management threatening to cancel the purchase of billions of dollars worth of Boeing cargo planes if Congress passes a law making it easier for unions to organize at the package-delivery company.

When a private banker starts to complain about the behavior of the ultra rich, one who makes his living taking care of such individuals, there truly is something substantive to these observations.

The temper tantrums grow larger than life.

The hyperindividualist is as maladapted to society as he is antisocial, and in one of life’s ironies, it is the antisocial individual who proves not to be the fittest: manipulative, self seeking, and always on the lookout for the advantage. “The unfit would be practically equivalent to the antisocial, but not (equivalent) to the physically weak or the economically dependent,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in Social Darwinism in American Thought. It is easy to be dismissive of such misfits, but it does become a concern when a society starts to frame them as role models. As it turns out, the hyperindividual doesn’t circulate only in business and government circles; the hyperindividual populates all levels of American society.

Dr. Peggy Cunningham, director of the School of Business Administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, brings a fresh perspective to contemporary management, contending that too much focus on individual success and competition between companies makes people forget that businesses and business leaders are part of a larger social system to which they are accountable. This forgetfulness, Cunningham feels, is what brought us to the dire economic straits we find ourselves in today.

Joining a growing chorus of MBA detractors who blame top schools for “hot-housing greedy, self-serving individuals and pushing a ‘leader as hero’ agenda,” and to underscore the ineffectiveness of such managers, Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University and a cofounder of the International Masters Program in Practicing Management, and Joseph Lampel, a professor of strategy at the Cass Business School, City University London, undertook a longitudinal study that tracked the performance of 19 CEOs from Harvard Business School’s “superstars” list for over 10 years. The findings of these two management professors? “Ten were outright failures (the company went bankrupt, the CEO was fired, a major merger backfired etc.); another four had questionable records at best. Five out of the 19 seemed to do fine. These figures, limited as they were, sounded pretty damning. When we published our results, there was nary a peep. No one really cared.”

The irony in all this is that while Herbert Spencer promoted a passive, deterministic approach towards society, [1] allowing events to take their course in the “evolution” of society, what we find in the hyperindividualist – the believer in “survival of the fittest” – is not passivity, but active manipulation that seeks underhanded advantage. This plays out time and again in both business and political leaders.

After hearing Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “The Strenuous Life,” the psychologist and philosopher William James blasted the oration by stating Roosevelt was “still mentally in the Sturm und Drang (literally: storm and stress – ed.) period of early adolescence.” [2] James saw all such dark outlooks of humanity as nothing more than the struggle of adults still attempting to emerge from adolescent angst, but failing to do so.

Unfortunately, such adults nevertheless find their way into positions of leadership. Yet, as John Rawls reminds us, “What a social system must not do clearly is to encourage propensities and aspirations that it is bound to repress and disappoint” (A Theory of Justice, Chp. 9, Sec. 81). Governing a society, in such instances, adds interference and complexity to all its members, even the innocent.

The real survivalists – the child soldiers in Africa, the street gang members in east Los Angeles, the rural residents of Afghanistan – understand this “competition” in business and politics as nothing more than games, that the only way to truly stake out a claim is to create unadulterated fear in all comers, accomplished at the end of a gun or a bomb. The real survivalist does not grapple with his sense of mortality, for he understands that he is to kill or be killed, and that this equation can tip against him at any time. It matters little, for the survivalist has no care for acceptance or love, no sense of social responsibility towards others. Life becomes a numbing chain of short-term reactions, not long-term consequences.

Yet, it is our problematic political, business and academic leaders – working through their adolescent angst in positions of responsibility – that create the environment in our world wherein the child soldier, the gang member, and the rural Afghan find it necessary to fight for their lives. [3]

By embracing a dark “survival of the fittest” framework in the social realm, to accept the notion that man is in warfare against all other men, humanity returns not to a state of nature, but to a subhuman, pre-social condition. It is animalistic at best, and offers no quarter for that which separates humans from animals: our cognitions, our sense of consciousness, our ability to make choices, our knack for developing curiosity and exploring our world, and our sense of morals and ethics.


End Notes

[1] F.A. Hayek discusses a limited determinism, based on convention and tradition , in his work The Constitution of Liberty and, in part, this determinism underlies his belief in “submission to the impersonal forces of the market” of which he discusses in Chapter 14 in his better-known work, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek concept of determinism drew from the works of Dickinson S. Miller (a.k.a. R.E. Hobart), Philippa Foot and others: “Their contention is that the conduct of a person at any moment, his response to any set of external circumstances, will be determined by the joint effects of his inherited constitution and all his accumulated experience, with each new experience being interpreted in light of earlier individual experience – a cumulative process which in each instance produces a unique and distinct personality” (The Constitution of Liberty, Chp. 5, Sec. 3). Thus, “inherited constitution” represents the genetic/biological traits of an individual’s personality, and “accumulated experience” would include such things as socialization, enculturation, education, etc.

The easiest means to explain this is to imagine the variables that act upon an individual’s decision making as each represented by a die (dice), and each die being placed in a cup. Through a person’s mental processes, the cup is shaken, then thrown. Each die represents a disposition or influences from one’s life, and the numbers on each die displays the magnitude of influence bearing on a decision, a six being the strongest, a one being the weakest. A die not present in the cup represents a variable with no influence at all, an almost infinite concept, thus preventing accurate forecasting.

Absolute determinism represents a throw of the dice, with each die coming up as a six. Absolute free will would be an empty cup, with no dice. The amount of dice and the number turned up on each die represents the probability of a given outcome for each decision. If we could, with 100% accuracy (or even close to 100%), provide probabilities on an outcome prior to a roll, areas of study such as the social or actuarial sciences could work under perfect knowledge, an impossibility.

Heredity and past experiences are not the only determinants of choice; the immediate context also plays a role, as does one’s outlook on the future. There is also, of course, the uniquely human attribute of being able to spontaneously create new dice, i.e., “noise,” which can introduce random errors in memory recall, but also can produce new associations of ideas, otherwise known as creativity.

The point that I would like to make is that while most everyone would agree “inherited constitution” and “accumulated experience” act on a person’s decision making, the number of variables present, their associations, and the magnitude to which these act on decision making are indeterminate prior to the decision making act. So while we may not labor under absolute free will, neither do we labor under absolute determinism.

Hayek, in contrast, seems to lean towards a pseudo-determinism: “[T]o make the best use of what knowledge we have, we must adhere to rules which has shown to serve best on the whole, though we do not know what will be the consequences of obeying them in the particular instance.” [The Constitution of Liberty, Chp. 2]. This, from the same chapter where Hayek argues well the need for liberty to find the best ways forward. He seems to cherry-pick the application of determinism v free will.

Nevertheless, we know individuals can and do rise above negative deterministic variables and make the right choices, including the potentially positive variables of present context and future outlook. Of course, this contention must also allow the individual to make the wrong choices, which is where morals and individual responsibility enters the picture. Thus, the best that can be hoped for is that the individual becomes capable of making the right decision most of the time. Hope, after all, is what prompts us out of bed in the morning, and keeps us moving forward.

Hayek, however, can frame individual responsibility for making choices – let there be no doubt individual responsibility is very necessary for the successful working of a free society – in severe terms, not unlike a stern parental figure. Yet, such a severe position works only if one assumes that proper and complete information, for which we need to make a fully informed decision, is not only sought after (a necessity for a decision to be considered responsible), but available. In our opaque society, asymmetrical information is often the rule, not the exception, and others can and do take unfair advantage of another without the needed information or knowledge.

Yet, our better natures emerge when we recognize that none of us operates under the benefit of perfect information, that we do indeed make wrong decisions in life, that we recognize this fallibility, forgive others for displaying the same weaknesses we possess at times, and assist them out of their plight as much as realities and practicalities allow.

Ideally, in a nation functioning as a democratic republic, assistance must emerge from individuals as much as possible for only individuals, working side-by-side with other individuals in a given community, can determine how much help to provide: Does the other individual repeatedly make unwise decisions, expecting others to consistently assist him or her (a learned dependency)? Or did the other individual make a one-off decision for the worst (or was the victim of misfortunes beyond his or her control), and thus deservedly in need of assistance? (Luke 14: 6-9)

The economist’s need for determinism likely emanates from his or her education in neoclassical economics and its belief in Newtonian mechanics applied to human economic endeavors. For Hayek, his call for adhering “to rules which has shown to serve best on the whole” lends itself to a passivity and a type of determinism that is difficult to align with his other calls for liberty within a society, and to align with the need for individual responsibility.

[2] From a William James letter to the Boston Evening Transcript, April 15, 1899, in response to then-Governor Theodore Roosevelt speeches on April 11, 1899 in Chicago and Ann Arbor, titled “The Strenuous Life.” Published in The Works of William James: Essays, Comments and Reviews, Frederick H. Burkhardt, ed., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 164.

[3] Almost 500 years ago, in The Discourses on Livy, Niccolo Machiavelli noticed the wealthy embrace the curious idea that accumulating material goods is a zero-sum game: “(T)he fear of losing what they have arouses in them the same inclination we find in those who want to get more, for men are inclined to think that they cannot hold securely what they possess unless they get more at others’ expense.” (Book 1, Discourse 5, emphasis added).

John Rawls, in his 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, also addresses this issue: “Suppose first that envy is held to be pervasive… The reason for this, it may be suggested, is the general belief that the aggregate of social wealth is more or less fixed, so that one person’s gain is another’s loss. The social system is interpreted, it might be said, as a naturally established and unchangeable zero-sum game.” Rawls then unwinds the discussion back to Freud: “Freud’s speculations about the origin of the sense of justice suffer from the same defect (i.e., interpreting social wealth as fixed)… (he) believes that this process is exemplified in the nursery…” (Chp. 9, Sec. 81). Freud traced the origins of a zero-sum outlook to an individual’s perceived competition for the mother’s breast as a baby. Hence, Rawls and Freud confirm that narrow, hyperindividualistic outlooks emerge in adulthood as infantilisms.