All Commentary
Monday, December 1, 1980

Ideas… (noble and otherwise)

Ben Barker, M. D., of Oxnard, California is a specialist In psychiatry and contemporary therapeutic techniques.

Since the dawn of recorded history, man has conjectured as to the identity of the most valuable commodity on Earth. In recent years gold, silver, platinum, raw land, improved land, oil, race horses and a host of other esoteric materials have vied conspicuously for the title of “most valuable.” But none of these items is even a close second. The most potent, valuable and elusive commodity on Earth is a good idea. Ideas move men and nations, change the flow of history, and always spring from the inspired mind of one man or one woman.

Although men create ideas, they understand them quite poorly and have little comprehension of their true value. Few, for instance, are able to conceptualize that all existing major industries, institutions, organizations and edifices began as a single idea. Nations, both great and small, owe their existence and development to a complex fabric of interacting ideas. Wherever there are men, there are ideas—and where there are noble men, there are noble ideas.

In order to understand ideas, we must begin with the dictionary definition:

1. a thought; mental conception or image; notion

2. an opinion or belief;

3. a plan, scheme, intention;

4. a hazy perception, vague impression, inkling
(Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1965)

What these definitions supply is the commonly accepted usage of the word. As we shall discover in this analysis, however, these concepts fall far short of defining an idea. It is a bit like believing that an acorn is an oak tree. Ideas have life cycles and merely begin as hazy perceptions, mental conceptions or notions. Very often they go no further but, in those cases in which ideas move on, we can discover their true value. The search resembles the process of ore mining: tons of dirt must be sifted in order to turn up a few ounces or pounds of the metal desired.

An apt analogy for an idea is a plant. Its seed is borne upon the cosmic wind, is sown within the mind of man and either finds nourishment there or withers and dies. If it is nurtured, it takes root and begins to proliferate. Proliferation involves penetrating the thoughts and minds of others, growing there and eventually becoming a part of accepted reality. To this point, then, we have looked at these steps in the life cycle of an idea: implantation, germination, proliferation and, finally, growth. These steps are both sequential and simultaneous.

One of the most poetic demonstrations of the process under consideration involves the idea of human flight. Originally, a presumptuous daydream mocked in ancient mythology, it found root in countless generations of souls who met ridicule and frustration as they tried vainly to implement their dream. Eventually, fixed-wing gliding flight was discovered by a single anonymous individual and spread horizontally. Then a pair of bicycle mechanics married that idea to two others: the propeller and the internal combustion engine—and the airplane was born.

The process of horizontal proliferation continued and the airplane became part of accepted reality. Simultaneously, vertical growth occurred as more complex and powerful airplanes were built and more men became involved in flying them. Other idea marriages were conceived and implemented: airplanes for mail delivery, group travel, bombing, surveillance, and the like. And an industry was born and grew before our very eyes. So it was also with oil, automobiles, radio, television, newspapers, computers.

Industrial Development Depends upon Free Will

What too few realize is that this entire process is dependent upon a sensitive variable called free will. If any one idea or ideology becomes so dominant in a social order that it refuses to allow implementation, germination or proliferation of other ideologies, the result is stasis and dissolution. In the Nazi Third Reich, post-1917 Russia, and revolutionary Red China, the dominant political party took on the role of the arbiter of the appropriateness of cultural ideas. The consequence of such control by a dominant ideology is always predictable.

So, we see that in the latter stages of development, an idea can become very powerful and suppress other ideologies. This is a type of malignant degeneration, much like cancer in the body, and can occur no matter how noble the idea at its inception. In a forest of giant redwoods, no other seedling has a chance.

What seems to be remarkably consistent in the degenerative stages of ideologies is that their proponents gain control of the apparatus of government, then use this mechanism to suppress competing ideas. Is there a way to prevent this process of idea growth and development from going too far? Can an ideal medium for competing concepts be pre served? Or are we all destined to live through one era of malignant degeneration after another?

It is quite possible that this was precisely the set of problems that those who framed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were working on. They were indeed men of wisdom and prudence and it would be folly to discard their valuable contribution to civilization. Yet that is evidently what is going on in this era of governmentalism. We are now living in an epoch of malignant degeneration of a once noble idea. That idea was that the mechanism of government could be used to halt poverty and to improve the lot of the common man.

An Idea Gone Sour

Who knows how this idea was born? Perhaps it came out of some individual’s translation of the intent of our own Constitution. It certainly was stated plainly by Marx as the intent of his Communist Revolution proposals. But has poverty ended in the USSR or her satellite nations? Is Cuba sailing into economic bliss under Castro? Has our own “war on poverty” succeeded?

The answers to these questions are obvious. Both Soviet Russia and socialist/capitalist America are choking to death on an idea gone sour—that government in and of itself can improve the lot of man. It cannot. Not by force of arms or with countless billions of dollars. The lot of man will improve only when and if new ideas are allowed to compete freely in the marketplace of mind for growing space. The sweat-stained bicycle mechanic must be free to divert his money and energy toward his impossible dream before man can fly. There is no other way.

That such a teeming marketplace of competing ideas existed on the American continent from 1750 to 1950 is the true secret of our explosive development in all areas during that time span. Individual initiative, private property, free enterprise—all of these are positive expressions that describe a missing negative force.

That negative force can be created and perpetuated by any ideology grown so mighty that it prohibits by coercive tactics the implantation, germination or proliferation of other ideas. It preempts the marketplace much in the manner of out-of-control weeds in a garden—and the garden dies, taking the weeds with it. Well, today’s ideology of government-as-benefactor-to-mankind is the out-of-control weed. It masquerades under many titles: liberalism, environmentalism, humanism. But they share a common variable: coercive restriction of others in the name of a cause.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is an idea that appears to have skipped across cultural lines and permeated Russian, Asian and American societies. It is at the heart of a collectivist philosophy which conceptualizes a mechanistic, scientific universe and seems far from a noble idea. Yet it is running wild, encouraging statism and socialism, and stifling individuality and creativity. The mass man in the enmassed society is the product of today’s dominant ideology which appeals to popularity with the crowd and to the longing to crush that with which one disagrees. Socialism and statism worship government as the embodiment of force.

Together with this obvious enthronement of the government apparatus itself is a pronounced tendency on the part of modern man to imbue bigness itself with magical qualities. So we see the marriage of diverse overgrown ideas to produce not growth and development but stasis and corruption. What chance has liberty and self-realization in such a repressive environment? More a chance, possibly, than even the most optimistic viewer can appreciate.

Associates in the field of behavioral analysis have assured me that the United States government would continue to debase the dollar until it became worthless. That pattern was in tune with historical precedent, they said; those in power abuse that power until it destroys them. Why, then, is our nation now in a recession? Can it be that an invisible hand independent of governments is at work? Will the dollar once again become a valuable currency?

Signs of Regeneration

The idea churning away in my own mind is that thinking Americans will join a silent revolution to save our nation and our currency before they are destroyed by our blind leaders. That is what the tax revolt is about. That is why conservatives are winning seat after seat in local and national elections. A new idea is taking root despite government efforts to snuff it out. That idea is that the individual does matter, that truth and honesty are virtues of worth, that love, sacrifice and concern can produce social orders that move toward greatness.

Freedom is the essence of a noble idea. In the case of manned flight discussed earlier, what if the railroad and trucking industries had used government coercion to halt aircraft development? Most would agree that such would have been a reprehensive, counterproductive use of power. Well, that’s where the government apparatus is today in more fields than can be conceptualized. Entrepreneurs, who are the most fertile soil upon which new ideas can be sown, are hamstrung by countless regulations emanating from our overgrown government bureaucracies. These regulations are conceived and enforced to “protect the public.” What they most often protect us from is progressive enrichment of our lives.

A Powerful Idea

Pessimists believe that big government and big industry will always retain their control and dominance over our lives. They may be correct. On the other hand, freedom does not always lose. In a recent book entitled, World in the Grip of an Idea (Arlington House, 1979), Clarence B. Carson talked of a teacher he admired: “Jesus showed us the true might of a lifestyle based on God’s laws, in this he was man incarnate. Of the things of this world he had none of any consequence. He was born in a stable, in a trough from which the animals ate. His parents were people of low estate. No organization ever set its seal of approval upon him. He lamented the fact that he was without honor even in his own community. He became an itinerant preacher and gathered about him for support only twelve men of uncertain loyalty.

“In all those things which a man is supposed to have in order to make an impact he had none. Men of authority suspected him of sedition. The Sanhedrin condemned him and turned him over to the civil authorities of Rome to be tried. He was then condemned by a throng of accusers . . .

“He had flung no challenges, broken no laws, formed no revolutionary party. But he had taught a way of life which undermined the way of the world. Organizations had to show their power; numbers (the throngs) had to intimidate else they must yield; force must be triumphant. It was not . . . Where there were once but twelve disciples, there are now millions.”

The idea of Christianity has had its rough times since initially conceived. It has been twisted, corrupted, perverted and distorted—but it still prevails, for at its core is a message of love and freedom. It is not necessary to be a Christian, though, to understand that a government which represses the Christian religion may also be re pressing other ideas of value. The advocacy of atheism is as much a state-endorsed religion today as was the advocacy of sectarian Christianity in the early colonies. Neither practice is consistent with freedom.

The Stifling of New Ideas Is a Suicidal Practice

Our nation will recover from its nosedive into international oblivion when it discovers that stifling new ideas is suicidal. The world is slipping into the maw of socialism/communism because our leaders have adopted tactics indistinguishable from those of the Soviets. Who is to blame for this disaster? We are. Each and every one of us. We took freedom so lightly that we forgot to guard it. We lost ourselves in an era of hedonistic abandonment and left government to the petty and envious. It is time for a change.

Men of foresight and intelligence who are scrambling for gold, silver and land to protect themselves and their families from an impending social crisis at least recognize the desperation of our times. Material assets are but insurance against disaster—the most reasonable course is to prevent the disaster if possible. It may be.

Sophisticated intellectuals who today are making snide remarks about the next “stone age” may not be around to even witness that unpleasant evolutionary possibility. Our nation is now in an era of transition which will shake many major institutions to their very foundations. The idea of freedom is again blowing in the wind, germinating in fertile minds, proliferating horizontally and growing vertically. It is a noble idea.

  • Ban Barker, M.D., is a specialist in psychiatry and contemporary therapeutic techniques and is Director of the Crisis Advisory Canter, Simi Valley, California.