The Crusade Against Excellence
MARCH 01, 1960 by MERRYLE STANLEY RUKEYSER
Mr. Rukeyser is a business consultant, lecturer, and writer of the nationally syndicated column, "Everybody’s Money."
If the recent TV quiz scandals represented a mere trade malpractice, their significance would be circumscribed. But it seems to me that the recent episodes are surface symptoms of a deeper malady.
The elaborate rigging to "control" programs on the air evidenced not only moral shortcomings, but also a lack of artistic integrity. The authentic artist seeks to portray the real nature of man, not a preconceived set of circumstances bearing no relationship to reality. In the market place for air time, opportunistic packagers and producers of programs were unwilling on quiz shows to run the risk of bringing selected personalities to the microphone, and let the chips fall where they may.
They feared that truth and sincerity might yield occasional dull spots, and an impatient audience would protest by turning the knob on the dial. Thus, they cynically downgraded the nature of man, and "hopped up" synthetic characters who appeared to know more than they did.
This desecration of decency in the clamor for "ratings" should be fully explored. Apart from ethics, morals, and political science, this scramble for rank does not make sense even in crass box office terms. The clamor for ratings is based on loose thinking stemming from the half-truth that "all men are created equal." This phrase—corrupted by demagogues—is utterly misleading unless qualified to mean that men are created with a right to equality of opportunity.
Uncritical dedication to the phrase has been the curse of the American educational system and other phases of the national life. Because of a lazy attitude toward the nature of a free society, hundreds of thousands of children have been psychologically bruised. Fanatics in the name of democracy insist on shoving all through precisely the same educational mill. Thus the pace and the curriculum, if geared to the average, are too fast for the slow learners and inadequate for gifted children. Wiser pedagogues are coming to recognize the need for plural standards related to the aptitudes, abilities, IQ’s, and other characteristics of individuals.
Enrichment of national life calls for a new respect for individual differences. Confused idealists have tended to weaken the national fabric through their passion for uniformity and conformity.
Is It Good Business?
On the TV issue, dismiss from consideration for the moment decent ground rules for the use of the ether, which is in the public domain. Even if we look only at strictly commercial considerations, this senseless drift toward programs that purportedly appeal to the lowest common denominator is far from prudent. The old Roman regime of "bread and circuses" has been widened to include Westerns and tales about cops and robbers.
It is putting the whole matter in the wrong frame of reference to argue that either federal bureaucrats or the networks should act to restrain the wickedness of sponsors. As a matter of fact, if sponsors are to get their money’s worth out of TV programs, they must relate their activities to their objectives. When the goal is to sell gum at five cents a package, the widest possible listening audience is obviously desirable—and, for the sake of argument, the correct approach may be Rock ‘n Roll. However, if the purpose is to "make friends and influence people" in order to improve a climate in which voluntary enterprise operates, then it is desirable to attract the opinion-making elite consisting of teachers, ministers, professional men, and executives, and the Philharmonic Orchestra or an exciting discussion forum may indeed be in order. It is obviously mixing "horses and apples" to rely on head counts by pollsters irrespective of the nature of the adventure upon which the business enterprise may have embarked.
And it is discrediting the free enterprise system unwarrantably to cast the sponsor in the role of villain and to investigate ways and means of forcibly restraining his depredations. It is high time for those who finance free TV and radio as sponsors to set voluntary standards for themselves.
Perhaps the issue can be lifted to its correct perspective by recalling that Dr. Alfred N. Whitehead, the eminent philosopher and mathematician, in his famous speech before the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, observed: "A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions."
Business statesmanship is capable of canons of responsibility based on something more than a blind worship of "ratings."
To me, the crux of the matter is that the managing directors of American corporations should responsibly take over as "decision makers" in this important area of human relations. This would entail giving "comeuppance" to little men on Madison Avenue, among the packagers, and in the networks, who are governed by worship of the false idol of the fast buck.
This is nothing more than enlightened self-interest. For every experienced analyst knows that, unless current transactions build up permanent capital in the form of good will, they are consummated at too heavy a cost.
Business leaders should instruct those at the merchandising fringe that no sale is worth-while unless it builds a friendly attitude toward the company. Otherwise, the immediate profit is made at the unreasonable cost of dissipating long-term, intangible corporate assets in the form of public esteem and good will.
Thus corporations would be better off if they retreated into anonymity rather than pay for exposure as patrons of crooked programs that promote mediocrity in public taste.
Whenever the corporate name is put before the public, management should undertake to make it a symbol of public decency and service to customers.
Besides consummating the immediate sale, the company, in its public exposure, should, in the words of a brochure which this writer put out in 1938, "sell the business (and the free-choice system) as well as the product." Unless the businessman each year puts something back into the system in the form of better public appreciation of liberty, he is like the antisocial farmer who mines the soil, returning nothing in fertilizers, better seeds, crop rotation, and other evidences of constructive behavior. Such a negative approach of taking everything out and putting nothing back is indeed destructive.
In putting their best foot forward, sponsors should associate themselves with activities that reflect quality, good taste, and standards.
Business will improve its prestige if it encourages excellence. This requires sufficient forbearance to be willing to reduce boob appeal in order to register the fact that they stand for truth, common honesty, and the scientific approach to better living and improving public taste.
The "Press" Called to Task
It would be falling into a superficial booby trap to limit the downgrading of excellence to radio and TV. Magazines of mass circulation are faced by similar temptations. Opportunistic editors are forever mindful that "hoking" up the news might sell more copies than dependable objective reporting. But even from strictly commercial standards, a balanced diet is to be desired. As the Saturday Evening Post has pointed out, it would not make sense for it to exclude everything except its most popular feature, "Postscripts." The late William Randolph Hearst, who is credited with originating "yellow journalism," had sufficient balance to respect quality. He always wanted in his newspapers thoughtful and significant pieces to round out the "cheesecake," the comics, and the lurid sex tales.
In my own specialty of finance, investment, and business counseling to corporate clients, it would be a shocking default not to aspire undeviatingly for a high degree of objectivity and accuracy. Thus, it would be a degradation of professional responsibility to try to expand an audience by saying that a financial panic is lurking immediately ahead when your true opinion is that some overdue profit taking might cause a mild intermediate reaction in stock prices. Yet when radio crooners and unspecialized announcers herald the day’s occurrences at the security market places, there is a discernible tendency among some to improve their ratings by exaggeration and by unwarranted sensationalism.
The sub-surface trend runs deep. Syndicate salesmen of newspaper features advise distinguished contributors to "write for the crowd." This is a mandate for oversimplification and for gilding the lily. There is too little concern for stimulating others to go through what the late Graham Wallas called "the painful task of thinking." In the craze for quantity merchandising, even superior word usage is discouraged on the theory that other than primitive language will narrow your audience. So what? In a good society, there is a multiplicity of audiences—one for Irving Berlin and another for Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Creative Role in Society
The passing public excitement and indignation over the rigging of quiz shows will get precisely nowhere in the way of constructive improvement unless we relate the episodes to the larger problem.
To put the matter bluntly, if we are to survive as a free Republic in the battle for "competitive coexistence" with the
Those who are aware of the trend of the new competition for survival should not retard their constructive inquiries because of the slow-wittedness of the unaware. In the free market place for ideas, there must be venturesomeness and risk taking. It is stultifying to inhibit dreams until the dullest minds regard such new concepts as self-evident.
The blazoning forth of the banners of mediocrity is a reflection of misguided political leadership. New Dealers, Fair Dealers, Double Dealers, mixed economy advocates, modern Republicans, and others have set back the processes of civilized progress by pandering to mediocrity.
The Glorification of Mediocrity
The downgrading of public taste is closely related to the drift toward a "welfare state." Despite the political blue-sky appeal behind the question-begging term "welfare," the collectivist formula for a "welfare state" is a deviation from an individual free choice society. The "welfare state," being the antithesis of a merit system in which each is rewarded for his degree of excellence, is a device for assuring robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to unduly reward the inefficient and the unproductive. In its nature, the "welfare state" rests on boob appeal and glorification of mediocrity. Its advocates inevitably find themselves crusading against excellence.
From a short-term standpoint, such negativism had its maximum appeal when fear was rampant during the maladjustments and widespread unemployment in the years following the panic of 1929. If the nostrums had appeal under such abnormal circumstances, they are obviously ill-timed in a period of quickened economic development.
Certainly the fallacious economic dogmas, concocted during the depressed early nineteen thirties, whatever their original merit or lack thereof, are today "old hat" in the context of high level employment in the dynamic nineteen sixties. Progress is made by courage in shedding outmoded illusions and prejudices.
Without regard to provincialism and special pleading, let’s encourage our fellow citizens in this struggle for survival to put their best foot forward and to foster excellence—not hamstring it. A great sermon, a stirring editorial, a revealing article, a fresh expression in business or in the arts of man’s capacity for creativity and improvement—these are instruments of progress. Let’s not choke off creativity on the ground that tired, worn out, tested appeal themes are safer.
Do We Deserve To Survive?
Instead of measuring our survival prospects in a vacuum, we should examine the more fundamental question: "Do we deserve to survive?" If we answer this in the affirmative, then we need have no fear that economic slavery behind the Iron Curtain will be more productive than a free society. In our soul-searching, we should not confuse the labels of free individual choice with the reality. We should give new and vigorous expression to the libertarian philosophy, and should make clear that it provides the fountains and springs from which creative improvement flows.
In backing a free society, we should make certain that we are not kidding ourselves. We should re-examine the effect of fastening inharmonious collectivist ideas on a free society. We should take a fresh look at the effect of trade union equalitarianism on the philosophy and practice of an incentive system. We should study anew the human consequences of offsetting incentives with a steeply graduated income tax, which tends to dilute material rewards. We should determine whether costly "feather bedding" is patriotic at a time when high productivity is the sine qua non for survival of the whole free world.
A Problem Everywhere
Obviously, this clash between excellence and mediocrity is not exclusively an American problem. Under Stalin,
Varga wrote with extreme caution, but he bucked the propaganda line. His conclusion that there was no necessary conflict between the economic interests of Soviet "socialism" and American and British capitalism in the first postwar decade was intolerable to the Stalinists.
Varga was bringing the message that capitalism was not on the verge of collapse. He was unfrocked for such effrontery, though subsequent events have proven the correctness of his forecast.
What Varga said and wrote are of less significance than the fact that he as the head of the Russian Institute of Economics was not permitted to express his true thoughts, findings, and appraisals. The point is that Russian economics was rigged just as quiz programs were.
What a price the world pays for rigging. If the Russian Praesidium had listened to its expert, it might have avoided the cold war, and could have started, a decade and a half earlier, rapprochements for international cooperation, such as Nikita S. Khrushchev is now mouthing.
Appealing to the Best
The stakes are heavy in this matter of counterfeiting the coins of communication. To the economically illiterate, the cost of calling gray black may seem trifling, but, in the race between civilization and catastrophe, it is important to respect the scientific approach.
When government steps in to dull the rewards for excellence and to supplement the productivity of the inept, it releases forces of savagery which retard progress. In a well ordered society, in which excellence is fostered, there is, of course, room for sweet charity, without encumbering the machinery for social progress.
But the processes of civilization are impaired when insincere politicians, seeking votes at any price through boob appeal, or hucksters, looking solely at ratings, re-enact
In the circumstances, those who contribute a mite to upgrading public taste are on the side of the angels.
Ideas on Liberty
If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless, since their chief purpose is to make us bear with patience the injustice of our fellows.
JEAN BAPTISTE MOLIERE, Le Misanthrope
The ethical image of competition as set forth by a company in its sales promotion and advertising policies sometimes does more harm than good—harm to its good name and ultimately to its net profits. The mere selling of goods can be carried out by any crook; it takes an organization with integrity to maintain such good customer relations that its word, spoken or written, rates as high as its financial bond.
H. A. TOULMIN, JR., Business 18 What You Make It