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A simpler way

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted June 30, 2008

Anyone who's been involved in any back-to-basics movement knows quite well of one main obstacle: being scoffed at as "simplistic." Just as there are some people who believe that there's no such thing as over-outgoingness, or that swinging harder at an incoming baseball means the ball will be hit farther, or that there's no such thing as being "too greedy to succeed," or that workaholicism can be cleanly detached from specialist's tunnel vision, or that there is no such thing as a corporation that's grown big enough to be unwieldy, there are people who believe that piling complexity upon complexity can never lead to a subtle kind of nominalism which features a love of complexity for its own sake. Although such complexity nests seem refined and intellectual, they're really the office workers' version of "doing something for the sake of doing something." Complexity for its own sake.

John McCainSo, it's no wonder that John McCain, pointing to eBay sellers as examples of American innovativeness still bubbling up, was widely scoffed at. To use Rush Limbaugh's pithy phrase, such scoffs evince a "method over substance" attitude.

It's true that eBay sellers, to continue with that marketplace as a metonymy, vary in their success rates. As Meg Whitman suggested, many of them can't afford to give up their day jobs. Some rise to the top and become affluent; others struggle, others barely scrape by, and some suffer losses. As is usual in the entrepreneur's life, there are no guarantees. Entrepreneurship is a learned skill, with the successful ones showing a style that covers up the obstacles they faced while struggling. Like any endeavor where individualism and initiative are normal, there's an associated no-complaining ethos which some find off-putting. Nevertheless, it meshes well with entrepreneurship as value-seeking. As we remember from our Eco 100 classes, the obvious profits are quickly snapped up and equilibrated away. In order to secure a sustained economic profit, value has to be sought, found, and added in some way. It's no wonder that entrepreneurs are notoriously untheoretical, and that the entrepreneurial way of life contains many fool's traps. The cynicism of the burned, and of the disillusioned, is rife.

Disreputable? Maybe; that word imputes a value judgment. The process, nevertheless, is the real thing. In addition, it may be what the American business fabric needs right now.

A lot of the businesses taken down by prosecutions after the Enron collapse show a definite complexity-loving streak. A documentary about Enron itself was ironically entitled "The Smartest Guys In The Room." Because the love of complexity entails erecting method over substance, or inculcating nominalism, it's unsurprising that ethical entanglements have nested in such organizations too. Even ethics itself may have fallen into the complexity trap, which explains why "morals" is a word still used. Morals never seem to go nominal.

One day after Sen. McCain's announcement, the news came down from the Seventh Circuit appellate court that Lord Black's appeal was rejected. Longtime Conrad Black supporters had long enjoyed chortling over his critics' complaints about the complexity of Hollinger's corporate structure, back during the time when no serious allegations of impropriety on Conrad's part ever made it past the crank file (c. 1984-2002.) Lord Black did have the notorious habit of letting the corporations he partly owned grow iteratively, rather than rationalistically, which made analysis of his companies a humbling experience for any analyst who liked things kept simple. Going through the financial statements of any of Conrad's companies, in the old days when he was flying high, did involve confronting one's "limited CPU power." Part of his fan group in the old days was composed of people who enjoyed the sight of a smart person winding up looking stupid after charging into the "Black zone."

Those were happier days; perhaps, they were more innocent ones. Nevertheless, our age has to answer to a different standard. A standard, I aver, that is quite compatible with a back-to-basics movement in entrepreneurship.

Even the suspicious-of-business type has to concede that simple-mindedness and guilelessness tend to go together, and that the simple way makes ethical (or legal) lapses far more obvious. This point implies that Senator McCain's recent remarks pertaining to innovativeness should be seen as a healthy exhortation to clean house through getting back to entrepreneurial basics.

The opposite contention, that simple businesspeople are ‘backward', has had (to put it mildly) unfortunate consequences. In the long term. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

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