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Howard's Daily: The Human Thing

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Real people, not rules, get things done. Rules exist to prevent bad conduct (thereby enhancing our freedom). Legal protocols, such as speed limits and contract law, allow people in a crowded society to move around without crashing too much. Organizational systems in companies, hospitals and schools can help mobilize humans to build products and provide services.

But only humans, individual people, make anything happen. Whether a school, hospital or business succeeds always hinges on the commitment, skill and judgment of the people. Government too requires individual initiative.

American history can best be told as a story of individual accomplishment -- not just inspirational political leaders, such as Washington or Lincoln, but social leaders such as MLK and, especially, innovators in every aspect of commerce and society -- from Fulton to Edison to the Wright brothers to Gates.

Jack Kinzler, longtime head of Technical Services at NASA center in Houston, died this past week at age 94. He famously rigged up telescoping fishing poles to figure how to build a replacement heat shield for the Skylab. He also fabricated the 6-iron which Neil Armstrong took to the moon. Reading the New York Times obituary, you can practically see the twinkle in his eyes when confronted with technical difficulties. Oh, and this legendary NASA genius never attended college.

Modern culture is not friendly to individual initiative. The dramatic exceptions, such as Steve Jobs or others in technology, only prove the rule. Sociologist Robert Bellah and colleagues spotted this trend a few decades ago, when they found that Americans increasingly consider freedom to be the freedom to be left alone, not the freedom to do things. We are free to aspire to flat screen TVs in every room, but not, say, to start a business or to volunteer at the local school.

Like all cultural phenomena, this growing sense of powerlessness has complex roots. One important source, as I write about, is the steady bureaucratization of social activities. The U.S. now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business. Many schools don't want volunteers -- there might be legal liability if something goes wrong. The land of the free has become a legal minefield.

The ultimate symptom of powerlessness is that America has also lost its confidence. We fear people making decisions. What if their judgment is deficient, or biased? We huddle together and move only in unison, shielded from the risk of individual choice by an ever denser legal jungle. This voluntary confinement reflects a fear of human nature, fed by a modern trend of analyzing human judgment as only slightly removed from bestial instincts. But this attitude "sells humanity short," David Brooks wrote this past week. People grow and mature and develop values that far surpass their primal origins.

All the people we admire, in our history and in our lives, are people who take responsibility for their choices. They are people whose first instinct is to ask, "What is the right thing to do?" and not, "What does the rule require?" Whatever works in any community or business is always the result of individual effort. People of energy and good will wake up in the morning, determined to make a difference.

Many of the problems that cause us to wring our hands -- starting with the dysfunction of democracy -- can be described as failures of individual initiative. Who's responsible for the budget deficits? Exactly. Nobody. David Remnick's recent profile of President Obama in the New Yorker reflected a kind a fatalism, that even the president could only respond to the situation presented, with little opportunity to lead us to a new place.

This is perhaps America's greatest cultural challenge. America needs to believe again in the capacity of individuals to make a difference. If the machinery of democracy is paralyzed, we must rebuild it. If we can't volunteer in our communities, we need to change the rules. If the culture has stumbled into the quicksand of social distrust, leaders with moral authority must emerge to pull it out. Nothing will fix itself, including America's insecure culture. Only humans can make things work.

For more Howard's Daily posts, visit commongood.org/blog.