All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1978

Making Sense Out of the World


Mr. Bradford Is well-known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

Our house guest was a handsome bachelor of around forty whom we had not seen since he was a teenage boy.. As a very young man he had left high school and joined the army, where he served out an enlistment of several years. Returned to civilian life, he finished high school and went through college by means of the G. I. Bill’s provisions. After that he got a good job with one of the government departments in a western state.

At the time he “dropped in” at our house he had been on that job perhaps fifteen years. He had never married, lived frugally, and saved up some money. Also, when his father died he found himself heir to a substantial legacy. This, plus his savings, he had prudently put at interest. With no family obligations, he figured he could live on the income thus generated. So he had quit his job and come to Florida to “look around.” And he had got in touch with us for what pointers we might give him about desirable places to live in our adopted state.

We soon discovered, however, that the phrase “looking around” meant much more to him than seeking a new location. He also wanted, as he expressed it, to “find himself.” But that, likewise, was not all. He had set himself, we found, a still bigger task—namely, to “make sense out of the world.” So he was not seeking a new job but expected, as nearly as I could make out, to settle into a career of philosophical speculation.

What it all came down to, finally, was that this high school and university graduate, who was already at the threshold of middle age, looked upon himself as a kind of sociological lost sheep—a poor little lamb that had lost its way in a rather wicked world. Hence his desire to “find himself.”

A Conflict of Interests

He seemed to feel, also, that there was some kind of conflict between having a job of any sort and also displaying a concerned interest in the political and economic fortunes of the human creature. But that, too, was not all. As I listened to what rapidly became a monologue he gradually let himself go, and I discerned that he seemed really unable to think beyond the familiar and time-worn cliches of the extreme and radical Left.

He thought just about everything in the United States was wrong and rotten. In stereotype terms he harped on the evils of poverty, the wickedness of Wall Street, the sins of Capitalism, the tragedy of slums, the barbarities of war—and so on . . . and on. During all this protracted denunciation of his own country, he revealed that he was an uncritical admirer of Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, and especially of Fidel Castro. His admiration of those characters was equalled only by the fervor of his detestation of the American political and economic system.

“When a society like ours,” he pontificated, “gets too rich, then the people at the bottom of the economic caste system suffer because their jobs are so poorly paid they have less respect for themselves and their position in society. This doesn’t happen in countries where most of the people are all poor together. It happens in industrial countries where wealth and affluence are flaunted continuously in front of the less fortunate people.”

Later, with evident approval, he added: “Some people have claimed that if we got rid of competition, crime, and many jobs that wouldn’t be needed in a socialist economy, then every American could have the equivalent of a $20,000 income. . . . If people couldn’t gain status by competing economically then everyone would be more free to compete with themselves, that is, by realizing more of their own potential as a person. I don’t think there would be much crime, mental illness, discontent, or tension in such a world. We have never really had freedom, because what people mean by this is to get away from being oppressed by others so that in their turn they can turn on some one else and live well by the sweat of his work. No one has ever really wanted to eliminate the economic caste system. They merely wanted to get off the lower levels and then live better at the expense of those on the bottom.”

(Lest you think I may have invented the rather turgid prose just quoted, I will explain here that it is taken from a letter he wrote a week or so after his visit in our home.)

On and on he went, in an endless and tiresome repetition of socialistic cliches and communist phrases. I put up with it for a whole day because he was our guest. But finally I had had enough, and told him bluntly that his sophomoric posturing was neither new nor original—that he was only repeating worn-out leftist cliches that I had read many years before, as a very young man, in various socialist journals that I perused avidly in those early days. He was merely echoing, I said, the tired old communistic jargon of the soap box agitator. At that he protested that he was not a communist, whereat I admonished him to stop talking like one, and advised him to season his politico-economic goulash with a dash of Adam Smith and a touch of Milton Friedman.

None Is Perfect

In doing this I was careful to explain that I was not an uncritical apologist for an economic system that sometimes suffered abuses. To defend capitalism, I said, was not to condone the misconduct of some capitalists. American capitalism, I admitted, has its crooks and thieves and petty tyrants and insensitive gougers, the same as socialism in England and Sweden or communism in Russia and Yugoslavia. But we have abundant statutes and legal processes to guard society against crooks, whether of the Right or Left; and especially we ought not to make the mistake of judging an economic mechanism by the deportment of the relatively few who use it improperly or criminally.

So what? Why bother with all this? Did it have any importance? Should I be concerned because one person chose to denigrate his own country and glorify its enemies?

Yes, I think I should, because that man was not alone. I have no way of knowing what percentage of his generation think and talk as he did, but it is probably considerable, because many of his age group were exposed to the same sort of leftist collegiate influence; and there are indications that present academic attitudes are doing little to bolster the faith of American students in their country and its institutions.

Several years ago I participated in a program that booked me as a “college visitor.” Under its arrangement I would spend two and sometimes three days on a campus, usually with a formal lecture before the student assembly, and with visits to various classes, and one or more question and answer sessions. In those engagements I was amazed to discover the extent to which the same anti-business, pro-socialistic line was being followed, not by students alone, but by faculty members. I was not making pro-business talks. In my book, being a businessman does not confer any special degree of sanctity. My concern was with the principles of freedom; and I spoke for the freedom-from-too much-government philosophy that is well-known to Freeman readers. Yet more than once I was accused, not only by radical students but by left-leaning faculty members as well, of being an apologist for “big business.” Would I fare any better today? I doubt it.

The casual visitor whose sophomoric diatribes inspired the writing of these paragraphs has long since vanished from my life. He was a rather pleasant chap, decent in his personal life, charitable in his instincts and impulses. Some traumatic experience of his youth may have warped his judgment about economic and political reality. Certainly he was quite practical about conserving his own cash—and blissfully unaware, the while, that he himself was a capitalist! I suppose he was really just a casualty of his cliche-ridden generation—a victim of the unbalanced exposure to radical propaganda that was experienced by the average college student of the forties and fifties—a barrage that was still in full thunder, as I have indicated, when I was a college visitor in the mid-sixties.

I note that a discouraging number of young people are still trying to “find themselves.” Over and over again I am informed via television interviews and talk-show appearances that students are still working on the task of “putting it all together”—whatever that may mean. And as for “making sense out of the world,” this appears to be a devout preoccupation of everybody under thirty!

Thinking vs. Working

Some of these Seekers after Truth, like our visitor, seem to feel that there is a disharmony or antagonism between laudably enlarging their view of life and the ordinary business of holding down a job and making a living. But the two things are not necessarily at odds, or in any way mutually exclusive.

To be sure, there are people who spend their energies in amassing money to the exclusion of other values, but that is because they are simply that kind of people. At the opposite extreme, they would spend Saturday evening at the neighborhood saloon instead of attending a free concert in the park. Poverty can indeed place severe restrictions upon intellectual development, and the possession of money does confer decided advantages; but these things are not conclusively determinant.

Of course when you attempt to “make sense out of the world” you set yourself a rather large task. The world has always been full of cruelty and selfishness and senselessness. It also exhibits amazing reservoirs of decency, devotion, dedication and human kindliness. In larger view, its peoples have always swung from extreme to extreme in their efforts to devise governmental mechanisms under which to regulate their relations with one another.

Alternately this has led to such triumphs as the Athens of Pericles, and to such chaos as was to be found in central Europe prior to Charlemagne. It has contrasted the intellectual achievements of the so-called Saracenic culture with the backward state of Christendom during the same period. And today it presents the conflicting ideologies found in the representative democracies, the dictatorships of the right, those of the left, and the hodge-podge of petty tyrannies that exist in some of the “emergent” states.

In all this welter of ideological conflict and experimentation, it has seemed to me that the best course for the individual is to make sense, so far as he can, out of his own life, rather than out of the billions of Lives that make up “the world.”

In this effort he will be wise to place major emphasis on his own mental and spiritual development. since he can not live very richly in self-contemplation alone, he will relate himself to what goes on about him. But above all he will see independence and self-improvement, not lust as political or social ideals, but Is practical aspects of the business )f successful living. I can see no reason why he can not do these things while filling even a routine ob. The one thing is a matter of Dread and butter. The other is a thing of the spirit. But there is no necessary conflict between them.

The main thing, I suppose, is to travel hopefully, as enjoined by Robert Louis Stevenson; to follow Thomas Carlyle in the realization ;hat we move through mystery to mystery—but never to yield to his pessimistic conclusion that we proceed “from darkness and into darkness.”

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.