07/18/2007 01:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Misconception by Pessimists

Many of my colleagues on the left are never so happy as when they can proclaim that things are getting worse. They're addicted to the tragic role of the voice crying in the wilderness, and won't ally themselves with anyone who might contaminate their more-left-than-thou image. But much of their gloom is based on the fallacious belief that change can originate from Washington.

A power center is inherently the most conservative place in any system, and the more power is centered there, the more conservative it tends to be. There are three reasons for this.

First, power centers are inhabited, obviously, by people who crave power. They may say they only want power in order to 'do good,' but it's significant that they don't feel any overwhelming desire to 'do good' before they get the power. They always feel they have to get the power first. Power is their priority. And people who are addicted to power are very quickly addicted to the status quo -- that is, to their position of power. They certainly don't want any change that would result in its diminution, which leads automatically to a distaste for any idea that doesn't come from themselves.

The second reason is that people in power are obligated. To get where they are they had to have help from many people, to whom they are now indebted. In a democracy, in particular, each step up the ladder obligates them to more and more people, and requires more and more promises to more and more people, leaving them less and less wiggle room. (This is why voters become susceptible to dictatorial leaders -- they want somebody who will ignore what the bulk of the people want and take some decisive steps -- like Stalin's collectivization of agriculture, or Mao's Cultural Revolution, or Pol Pot's Killing Fields. Or Bush's 'surge.')

The third reason is that people in power are busy. To maintain their position they have to constantly be doing things -- they don't have the leisure to entertain new ideas or new strategies. They're committed to whatever has worked for them in the past. Modern corporations are aware of this -- they know that the greatest business successes can disappear overnight because of some unanticipated technological breakthrough. They know new ideas come from outsiders. That's why many have created labs that are isolated from the rest of the firm, run by people utterly untrained in the business and unfamiliar with its culture.

It's well-understood by modern business that new ideas always come from those uncommitted to the status quo -- from outsiders. Why, then, do people on the left persist in expecting social change to be brought about by Washington insiders? Washington is the absolute last place to look for new ideas. By the time a new idea percolates down to Washington and is proclaimed as such, it's old hat to the rest of us, and by the time it's been implemented it's so watered down as to be merely a slight variation on an old one.

Corporations are oriented to the future. They know today's world requires enormous flexibility. To meet that need they have become global, have flattened hierarchies, increased personnel diversity, dissolved artificial boundaries, opened channels of communication. While at the same time Washington -- always the last to catch on to a social trend -- has become increasingly insular, increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical, has put up walls, fought diversity, and become more secretive than the Kremlin.

Leftists disdain working with corporate leaders, who are all seen as evil Goldfingers. They would rather beat their heads against the wall expecting change to come out of the most antiquated, backward, unimaginative organization in America -- the Executive Branch of our Government.

When Bush was still denying the existence of global warming corporate heads were already planning for it. When our government is still spending billions on oil exploration and ignoring alternative energy sources, corporations are exploring energy conservation and alternative energy technologies -- all for the bottom line. Many corporations have long since figured out that a small short term outlay in the present to create environmental sustainability can produce huge cost savings in the future and win scores of PR brownie points at the same time.

It's a lot easier to work with people whose focus is money. You can influence them in a constructive direction merely by showing they can make money at it.

Leftists scorn the corporate world because it's money-mad. They prefer trying to influence people who are power-mad. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Yes, of course, change will eventually come to the dismal swamp in which our nation's capital lies, but it will come everywhere else first. The left needs to put more of its energy where it will have more impact more quickly.