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Putting yourself on the line.

Perhaps the most important advice this magazine has given its readers is Do Work You Believe In-put yourself on the line for the sake of your principles. The droves of talented people who have sacrificed interesting and important work simply to make a lot of money,, not only cheat society but cheat themselves too.

When the Monthly was founded, entrepreneurs were not held in high esteem. Liberals lumped all businessmen together and called them Babbitts or robber barons. Conservatives defended businessmen generally, failing to distinguish between the one who enlarges the economic pie by creating new jobs, and the one who merely trades the existing slices-and too often failing to condemn the one who cheated customers, exploited employees, or polluted the environment.

We applaud risk-takers-people who have the courage to start a new business or speak out against wrong actions by their superiors in government or business. Far too many people think of themselves merely as employees, with no responsibility for the actions of the organization they, work for

This piece appeared in 1974.

What we need is a rebirth of entrepreneurship. The adventure of creating something new, whether it be factory or school or clinic, has stirred the American soul in the past. But for too long it has been forgotten as our attitudes have been molded by a conservatism dedicated to the defense of established big business and by a liberalism too closely allied to big government and big labor, with branch offices in the foundations and the universities, where profit is a bad word.

Perhaps most to blame is the culture of liberal idealism, which automatically characterizes someone who goes into an urban planning consultantship as idealistic and classifies the person who decides to be a building contractor as comparatively base. The entrepreneur has become linked in the liberal mind with the robber baron who delights in destroying his competition. Sometimes he is just that. But he can in fact be a creator, equally deserving of praise or blame in terms of the quality of what he produces, as are the creators in the arts upon whom the liberal lavishes so much attention.

While our conservatives have been busy suppressing antitrust suits and bailing out every inefficient giant, the liberals have kept busy protecting their sinecures in government, the unions, and the wonderful world of nonprofit institutions, where tenure is king and ever-escalating salary without regard to performance the rule.

Because of the conspiracy of silence by the liberals, the perils of tenure have hardly been examined. Yet it is an evermore powerful fact of life in the civil service, in schools and universities, and increasingly in the great corporations, where an unofficial kind of tenure is more and more common.

In order to work well, particularly at something other than plain labor, people have to feel free to leave: they stay only because they choose to stay. The trouble is that structures like tenure, like any job that arranges your life for you, insuring against risk, providing a neat little stepladder on which to mark your progress, tends to weaken inner direction and sufficiency.

Another reason people stay in the government bureaucracies is money. More than 73,000 civilian government employees draw base salaries of more than $24,000 a year. By 1977 they will be making more than $36,000. (As this is written, federal government unions are threatening rebellion if they don't get an expected 5.5 -percent pay increase this fall, and the militants among them are demanding a 30-hour week.) The money is, of course, even better in the big corporations and foundations.

But money is far from the whole story. Another factor is the need to function. Free-lance writer Paul Dickson has described the identity problem this way:

"You become extremely nervous about meeting new people because of the ever-present question, 'Who are you with?' When your answer fails to attach you to a recognized organization like The New York Times, or Nader's Raiders, or the Department of Labor, both parties to the conversation often become embarrassed by your obscurity. There is some second-echelon hope for you as, say, a writer, in the recovery question, 'Well, who do you write for?' If you have published for an organ of widely acknowledged distinction, such as Harper's, things will bounce back quickly, and the conversation can proceed.

Of course there are practical obstacles to going out on your own that can't be overlooked. You need some kind of financial cushion and a reasonable amount of encouragement and protection from the government. That's why there's a need for a guaranteed annual income, for tax incentives for new businesses, and for enforcement of antitrust laws. We also propose a system of payment for higher education that will put an end to the trap that a college education for their children means to most parents.

But many of these apparent obstacles to independence are really psychological ploys by which the imprisoned fool others and even themselves. Often the man who says he's staying in a job he hates for the sake of the kids is really pinning a martyr's badge on himself that will be paid for in the guilt of his children, who would be much better off with the mental health that comes from a happy home. And, surprisingly enough, more and more people who say they can't break away from General Motors because of the wife and kids really have enough capital to thumb their noses at the boss.

Out of the rut

You have to take responsibility for what your organization is doing, whether it's producing the best or worst product or service it's capable of producing, whether it's competing fairly, whether it's polluting or not polluting. Does our job really count? Are we doing it well'! Does our organization do a good job? If not, we should be ready to find a new job or start a new organization.

Not everyone can, of course. Many people lack the money or the talent-or the youth in a society that scorns the aged. But far more have the option than are using it. Some are held back by greed; they don't want to give up the special little angle they have now. But others who could go out on their own are paralyzed by the fear of failure.

One begins to overcome that fear of failure with the realization that failure hurts most those who are aiming at success. When you're preoccupied with success in the sense of making it rather than doing your work, the appearance of success is everything. When your focus is on doing the job, failure today simply means you try again tomorrow. Ironically, failure is most likely when you are focused not on doing your ,job but on the identity it gives you.

We've got to get out of these ruts if we're to restore the health of this country. From the conservative must come the liberal's humanitarian concern for income security and medical care. From the liberal must come the old conservative respect for entrepreneurship. From both must come a new respect for free criticism of institutions, including their own. Together they can produce a climate that will encourage men to want to change from phony jobs to jobs that count, to want to reform their organization, and failing in that attempt, to form new organizations that will do the job better, to want to do well without having to kick the shit out of the other guy, to have the fun of waking up in the morning and saying I know I'm going to try to do what I want to do, not what someone else thinks I should do, not what will earn me social position or paper credentials, but what I enjoy doing and do well.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:1302
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