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.
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.
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.