Adam Smith’s cul-de-sac:
An esteemed colleague of mine hails from South Africa but has spent the last seven years as a principal and now assistant superintendent in a district in east Texas. Immigrants to the United States provide us with a much-needed opportunity to self-examine. He was commenting upon his inability to understand the lack of unity and community reflected in the American dialogue. The individualism that we presume puzzled him greatly. But then he attended a class in which a university professor explained Adam Smith and his seminal works on the virtues of the free market and the ‘invisible hand’s’ ability to correctly regulate economics. Beneficial individual innovation, when of merit, will naturally lead to success and the betterment of the order. Therefore, above all and beyond all, we must reward individual innovation. To doubt this is to question the foundation of modern America. It’s Socialist. Worst yet, even Communist. God’s natural order, posits The Wealth of Nations, is survival of the fittest.
But Newton’s theory of gravity eventually met up against a roadblock. Even Einstein couldn’t explain life at the quantum level. Now we’ve got string theory.
What if Mr. Smith has led us into a cul-de-sac? What if our global problems are so intractable that we must find new theories in which individual effort and innovation must be guided by a greater sense of purpose? What if collaboration is our only hope? Web 2.0 allows us this ability in a way we’ve never experienced before. Each of us can defy space and time and collaborate across distances. We can search out each other’s comments in real time with Technorati. We can carry on the great global conversation if we have an internet connection. We don’t even have to know how to read. We can Skype. We can podcast!
There are those who view this new web with a paradoxical mix of trepidation and celebration. Wow, what we can do? Wow, let the competition begin. I must admit I fall into this line of thinking myself at times. As the mother of a five and eleven-year old I fear for what will be asked of them if they are to survive and compete.
But then I remind myself; perhaps I’m caught in Adam Smith’s cul-de-sac. How long can we go round in increasingly small circles of individualistic thinking? String theory used to posit that all strings were small, tightly-closed circles of vibrating energy. Not anymore. Now they are believed to be open and connected to a larger fabric.
So if I’m also open and connected to the rest of my fellow world travelers, then maybe I don’t need to protect myself from the other string circles. Maybe I could find my proper place and connect, helping to create a more resilient fabric.
And as my South African friend commented to me recently: let’s hope so because our capitalistic system is now global. And if this great civilization is indeed in decline, then we’re in for a global crash. The fall of the Roman Empire is but a microcosmic precursor to what we’re in for.
Perhaps we must teach our children 21st Century skills not to compete and beat out the next guy, but instead to save an increasingly fragile and tottering planet.
We can exit this cul-de-sac, but it is naive to suggest it will be without immense effort and Herculean paradigm shifts. With this challenge in mind, let the race for developing billions of 21st Century thinkers begin!
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