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Jewish World Review
Sept. 20, 2007
/ 8 Tishrei 5768
Who Will Say I Promise to Lay Off?
Throughout history writers have drawn attention to the admirable way in which creatures like ants and bees organize their communities. Their cooperation, common spirit and lack of egoism are seen as keys to their success. In the West the founders of the Cooperative Movement and early socialists drew inspiration from the bees and their hives. Ants were less commonly chosen as models by these ideologues (most of whom were pacifists), because ants were seen as warriors as well as workers. But Lenin praised them, the "worker ant" being one of his terms of approval.
In designing their utopian societies, however, these idealists omitted to ask themselves an important question: Where had the tremendous instinct for cooperation that animated the bees' hive and the ants' nest actually gotten the creatures that live in them? Nests and hives have existed for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of years--and are still the Original Model. Nothing has changed since Aristotle analyzed the activities of ants and Virgil wrote so charmingly of bees. But in the meantime mankind has multiplied, lives three times as long, is bigger and healthier, has turned the luxuries of the rich into the ordinary necessities of the poor, has conquered the planet and is now reaching for the stars.
A Crucial Difference
What is the difference that makes ants and bees engage in endless repetition, remaining static, while humanity relentlessly changes and advances? The difference is summed up in one quality that the culture of the hive and the nest so conspicuously and necessarily lacks: individualism. There is no such creature as an individualist bee or ant. They are not identical; each has a life to live and lose. But none thinks for itself. All accept the burdens and conformity, the monotony and changelessness of communal society. In this instinctual acceptance lies the secret to their successful survival, as well as their failure to advance.
Now, human beings have never mindlessly accepted society as they find it or the methods of doing things as handed down by their forebears. The earliest of archeological traces reveal novelty, be it only in the chipping out of a flint tool or the assembly of a crude necklace of pebbles.
Human beings can often work well in teams, but they are at their most creative alone. That is how Archimedes discovered how a lever works. Copernicus was not part of a university team. Galileo worked out the relationship between the Earth and the Sun on his own. Newton, Darwin and Einstein were men accustomed to long hours engaged in solitary thought, the reclusive examination of specimens or the hermitlike working out of long pages of equations. Only a few hundred yards from where I write this, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the key step in the advent of the antibiotic drugs that have prolonged countless lives. At that crucial time Fleming didn't even have a lab assistant.
Most of the industrial pioneers operated by themselves during the most fruitful periods of their careers. This was true even of Thomas Edison, who later became famous for creating a workshop culture in which clever individuals worked together on inventions. But I stress the word "individual," for that is what they remained. As the long list of Nobel Prize winners testifies, the essence of discovery lies in the skill with which men and women find partners for mutual encouragement and critical support while still giving their individual inventiveness full rein.
In material terms individuality is the most precious of all human characteristics. When it is forcibly restrained, as it was in Stalin's Russia or Mao's China, or systematically discouraged, as it was in the India dominated by Nehru's Congress Party, living standards remain low and stagnant. The unleashing of the individual to create and run independent businesses in today's China has demonstrated how quickly such freedom can improve the way in which hundreds of millions of people live. Whenever human beings are permitted to pursue their own ideas and exercise their ingenuity without being bullied into conformity by authority, the results are always surprising and often sensational.
A Critical Choice
The U.S. is approaching a presidential election, with candidates laying out their platforms and policies. Who will speak for the individual or think in terms of what the individual wants from government? That is what interests me. For, just as the U.S. was created by individuals exercising their uniqueness under the rule of law, so the continuance of its prosperity and its power to uphold right in a dangerous world will depend upon whether individualism flourishes or not.
Creative spirits do not need favoritism. They instinctively recoil from special treatment. They can prosper without subsidies or tax relief. All they ask for is the huge, echoing silence of government inactivity. They long for a pristine world in which laws and lawyers do not trip them at every step, where they can work quietly, industriously and productively by themselves. I believe such creative individuals are more numerous than ever and that the opportunities for them to enrich themselves and improve life for all are greater now than at any other time. They ask only for a candidate and future President who will use five vital words: "I promise to lay off."
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© 2006, Paul Johnson