Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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I KNOW WHAT YOU SAY...
Words are simply sound-symbols for concepts; the meaning of a sound-symbol is not rigidly, unchangeably connected to a concept, so subtle change can readily set in. And usually does, of course, unless specific efforts are made to establish a solid, rigid correlation between symbol and concept. Science has made progress largely by reason of working with hard, rigid definitions, and sticking to them. That's the only way you can discover you're stuck with one - and admit the need for a change of concept.
But outside of science, the concepts sort of ooze out from under a symbol, without anyone actually admitting the change has taken place. The only way you can check, then, is to recall the old, pragmatic dictum, "I don't care what you say; what do you do?" Physical science has accepted rigid definitions, because physical science is one hundred per cent concerned with action-doing. An electron is a concept - but the term refers to a pattern of behavior, of doings.
I want to discuss a certain American sound-symbol, one that has badly slipped its moorings. Discussing the symbol is pretty useless, under such circumstances, because it can be shown that "history proves that..." by referring to what that sound-symbol did refer to. So let's set up a brand-new, nonsense word and define it in terms of action-doing. Reason: we'll have a term which, as a term, has no historical values whatever. We'll be forced to discuss the historical value of the action-doing system it refers to, because the term itself has no history.
Then we can, later, cross-check with the historical terms, and see how much, and in what direction, the terms have slipped.
Let's use the term "gwolic system" to refer to a particular economic philosophy. We'll define a "gwolic system" as a system under which major units of economic production are allowed to be controlled in an essentially arbitrary manner by individuals who gain their position by demonstrating unusual competence and ability. The individual executive under this system is not responsible to any higher authority for his individual decisions, but is held accountable for the over-all success or failure of his stewardship.
Under the gwolic system, the individual who shows executive competence by maintained over-all success, is automatically able to achieve the same type of arbitrary, individually-determined control over greater and greater economic units.
Mistakes he may make, causing a loss, he need not explain nor account for to anyone else, so long as his net average performance is as good or better than that of his highest-ranking competitor.
However, under the gwolic system, if his average is surpassed by a competing executive... he's out.
The system is, obviously, a little rugged on the individual executive; there is no guarantee of job-security, nor any reward for length of service.
But it has marked advantages from the viewpoint of the economy as a whole. It assures that the major productive units of the economy will be in the hands of individuals of exceptionally high competence. And the control is not determined on a basis of predetermined theory or ideology, but on the harsh, pragmatic test of workability.
Further, workability is necessary, but not sufficient. If John Jones has made the economic unit under his control work, and work well... that's only enough to hold the job temporarily. As soon as someone comes along who can make it more workable, John Jones is out, and the new man is in.
Notice that the executive is free to make any arbitrary decision that he, personally, thinks is sound - and no over-riding board peering over his shoulder reviews those decisions before they're acted on. He's a dictator, free to impose his opinions on the economic unit under his control. The only limitation imposed on him is that the net result of his actions must be advantageous.
That this system would lead to high productivity, and a maximum rate of growth is fairly evident. That it would be hard on the individual executive is also obvious. It would also, of course, be hard on the individuals employed in the economic unit when the executive did make a major blunder.
So much for a definition-description of a "gwolic system".
Now what historical name does this system correspond to?
The old-fashioned Capitalistic system, of course. The executive accumulated control over a major economic unit by accumulating capital; he owned the resultant unit, and managed it on a private-decision basis, without supervisory control. If he managed it well, on the average, his executive power was increased by further accumulation. If he slipped once or twice, he learned from the experience... or, if he didn't learn, he went bankrupt, and the control passed to others who could do better.
Further, if he was doing a good job, but another man came along who could do better... control was gradually taken from him, and the wiser executive gained.
The individual executive, under that system, was uncontrolled in so far as immediate decisions were concerned... but definitely controlled by loss of economic control if he continued to fall behind.
Now let's consider another type of system, one we'll call a "ngoric system". A ngoric system is characterized by committee-and-theory control of economic units. Executives are appointed, but they operate under policy established by the committee, acting on an agreed-on theory of How It Should Be. The immediate success or failure of the economic unit so controlled is not so important; the realization of the theoretical goal established is. Thus, even if one economic unit continues to function at a loss for a considerable period, it will be maintained, because the theory requires that it be done that way. Even an economic unit that does not work can be maintained under the ngoric system, because it should be.
The larger the scope of the committee and theory, the less workability of any one economic unit matters, and the less important competence of the executive becomes.
The ngoric system has obvious advantages; for handling long-range projects involving a long period of initiation, it is self-evidently excellent. The mammals, in essence, introduced the ngoric system, when they introduced long-term care of the young. The young are always incompetent, and an economic loss, until a very large investment of time, effort, and energy has developed them.
It's also the ngoric system that makes research laboratories possible. Governments, too, operate largely on the ngoric system.
What historical term corresponds to this defined system? The Socialistic system, of course; it is a system wherein government committees, operating under theory, appoint executives to operate economic units. The fact that an economic unit isn't producing adequately doesn't mean that anything is wrong in a socialistic system; the theory is important, not the practice. If it's a thing that should work, then patience, and continued subsidy, is sure to make it succeed.
Of course, it's a little hard to tell whether the personnel of the project is competent; the mere fact that their project isn't getting anywhere doesn't prove anything, of course. It takes time for these things. And it is difficult to get satisfactory executives for Socialistic programs; so many of the highly competent individuals are so impatient with theories, and show such poor acceptance of proper organizational procedure and discipline. They keep tending to act on their own, instead of consulting the committee before making any moves.
And now the big question: which type of system - Capitalistic or Socialistic - does the United States have today?
Socialistic, of course. Yes, I know they say it's Capitalistic... but what do they do? Can a major economic unit make a move today without consulting with some series of committees? If it isn't the Securities Exchange Commission, it's the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, a state Utilities Commission, or, at minimum, some Labor Committee. Congress doesn't have the power to make executive decisions for private capital companies like the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, of course. But the Department of Justice forced their subsidiary, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, to renounce its rights under the Patent Law (as it did also for IBM, and is in process of doing to RCA). And, of course, the Federal Communications Commission rulings determine what the company executives must do. And it was long ago pointed out that "the power to tax is the power to destroy" which fact both Congress and the A. T. & T. thoroughly appreciates.
No executive of a major economic unit in this country is free to operate without half a dozen committees peering over his shoulder. No economic moves involving finance can be undertaken without first consulting the Securities Exchange Commission.
Meanwhile, the railroads operate almost uniformly in a state of quasi-bankruptcy. They, the only inherently efficient long-haul, heavy-duty transportation system, are being taxed and unionized into inoperable condition.
Now, on the other hand, let's see what kind of economic system the vaunted Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has.
Practically pure gwolic! Sure, the executive may be called a "commissar" instead of "owner" - but he's an executive having direct, personal authority over major economic units, held responsible for the over-all success of his unit, but not for his individual decisions toward that end.
Ah, me, how the symbols and the referent concepts do ooze around!
Soviet Russia has, in all the action-doing particulars, an almost pure Capitalistic system... while the Capitalistic United States has an almost pure Socialistic economy!
One thing remains true; the gwolic system, under whatever other name you put it, has historically proven, again and again, the system that gets the most real accomplishment in the least time. It worked wonderfully for the Americans, when we had it, and it seems to be doing great things for the Russians now.
It always was a good system. Too bad we gave it up.