All Commentary
Tuesday, March 1, 1960

The Crusade Against Excellence

Mr. Rukeyser is a business consultant, lec­turer, and writer of the nationally syndicated column, quot;Everybody’s Money.”


If the recent TV quiz scandals represented a mere trade malprac­tice, their significance would be circumscribed. But it seems to me that the recent episodes are sur­face symptoms of a deeper malady.

The elaborate rigging to “con­trol” programs on the air evi­denced not only moral shortcom­ings, but also a lack of artistic in­tegrity. The authentic artist seeks to portray the real nature of man, not a preconceived set of circum­stances bearing no relationship to reality. In the market place for air time, opportunistic packagers and producers of programs were unwilling on quiz shows to run the risk of bringing selected personalities to the microphone, and let the chips fall where they may.

They feared that truth and sin­cerity might yield occasional dull spots, and an impatient audience would protest by turning the knob on the dial. Thus, they cynically downgraded the nature of man, and “hopped up” synthetic charac­ters who appeared to know more than they did.

This desecration of decency in the clamor for “ratings” should be fully explored. Apart from ethics, morals, and political science, this scramble for rank does not make sense even in crass box office terms. The clamor for ratings is based on loose thinking stemming from the half-truth that “all men are created equal.” This phrase—corrupted by demagogues—is utterly misleading unless qualified to mean that men are created with a right to equality of opportunity.

Uncritical dedication to the phrase has been the curse of the American educational system and other phases of the national life. Because of a lazy attitude toward the nature of a free society, hun­dreds of thousands of children have been psychologically bruised. Fanatics in the name of democracy insist on shoving all through pre­cisely the same educational mill. Thus the pace and the curriculum, if geared to the average, are too fast for the slow learners and in­adequate for gifted children. Wiser pedagogues are coming to recognize the need for plural standards related to the aptitudes, abilities, IQ’s, and other charac­teristics of individuals.

Enrichment of national life calls for a new respect for individual differences. Confused idealists have tended to weaken the na­tional fabric through their passion for uniformity and conformity.

Is It Good Business?

On the TV issue, dismiss from consideration for the moment de­cent ground rules for the use of the ether, which is in the public domain. Even if we look only at strictly commercial considerations, this senseless drift toward pro­grams that purportedly appeal to the lowest common denominator is far from prudent. The old Roman regime of “bread and cir­cuses” has been widened to include Westerns and tales about cops and robbers.

It is putting the whole matter in the wrong frame of reference to argue that either federal bureau­crats or the networks should act to restrain the wickedness of spon­sors. As a matter of fact, if spon­sors are to get their money’s worth out of TV programs, they must relate their activities to their objectives. When the goal is to sell gum at five cents a package, the widest possible listening audience is obviously desirable—and, for the sake of argument, the correct approach may be Rock ‘n Roll. However, if the purpose is to “make friends and influence people” in order to improve a climate in which voluntary enter­prise operates, then it is desirable to attract the opinion-making elite consisting of teachers, ministers, professional men, and executives, and the Philharmonic Orchestra or an exciting discussion forum may indeed be in order. It is obviously mixing “horses and apples” to rely on head counts by pollsters irre­spective of the nature of the ad­venture upon which the business enterprise may have embarked.

And it is discrediting the free enterprise system unwarrantably to cast the sponsor in the role of villain and to investigate ways and means of forcibly restraining his depredations. It is high time for those who finance free TV and radio as sponsors to set voluntary standards for themselves.

Business Statesmanship

Perhaps the issue can be lifted to its correct perspective by recall­ing that Dr. Alfred N. Whitehead, the eminent philosopher and mathematician, in his famous speech before the Harvard Gradu­ate School of Business Administra­tion, observed: “A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions.”

Business statesmanship is capa­ble of canons of responsibility based on something more than a blind worship of “ratings.”

To me, the crux of the matter is that the managing directors of American corporations should re­sponsibly take over as “decision makers” in this important area of human relations. This would en­tail giving “comeuppance” to little men on Madison Avenue, among the packagers, and in the net­works, who are governed by wor­ship of the false idol of the fast buck.

This is nothing more than en­lightened self-interest. For every experienced analyst knows that, unless current transactions build up permanent capital in the form of good will, they are consum­mated at too heavy a cost.

Business leaders should instruct those at the merchandising fringe that no sale is worth-while unless it builds a friendly attitude to­ward the company. Otherwise, the immediate profit is made at the unreasonable cost of dissipating long-term, intangible corporate as­sets in the form of public esteem and good will.

Thus corporations would be bet­ter off if they retreated into ano­nymity rather than pay for expo­sure as patrons of crooked pro­grams that promote mediocrity in public taste.

Whenever the corporate name is put before the public, manage­ment should undertake to make it a symbol of public decency and service to customers.

Besides consummating the im­mediate sale, the company, in its public exposure, should, in the words of a brochure which this writer put out in 1938, “sell the business (and the free-choice sys­tem) as well as the product.” Un­less the businessman each year puts something back into the sys­tem in the form of better public appreciation of liberty, he is like the antisocial farmer who mines the soil, returning nothing in fer­tilizers, better seeds, crop rotation, and other evidences of construc­tive behavior. Such a negative ap­proach of taking everything out and putting nothing back is indeed destructive.

In putting their best foot for­ward, sponsors should associate themselves with activities that re­flect quality, good taste, and stand­ards.

Business will improve its pres­tige if it encourages excellence. This requires sufficient forbear­ance to be willing to reduce boob appeal in order to register the fact that they stand for truth, common honesty, and the scientific ap­proach to better living and im­proving public taste.

The “Press” Called to Task

It would be falling into a super­ficial booby trap to limit the down­grading of excellence to radio and TV. Magazines of mass circulation are faced by similar temptations. Opportunistic editors are forever mindful that “hoking” up the news might sell more copies than de­pendable objective reporting. But even from strictly commercial standards, a balanced diet is to be desired. As the Saturday Evening Post has pointed out, it would not make sense for it to exclude every­thing except its most popular fea­ture, “Postscripts.” The late Wil­liam Randolph Hearst, who is cred­ited with originating “yellow journalism,” had sufficient balance to respect quality. He always wanted in his newspapers thought­ful and significant pieces to round out the “cheesecake,” the comics, and the lurid sex tales.

In my own specialty of finance, investment, and business counsel­ing to corporate clients, it would be a shocking default not to aspire undeviatingly for a high degree of objectivity and accuracy. Thus, it would be a degradation of profes­sional responsibility to try to ex­pand an audience by saying that a financial panic is lurking immedi­ately ahead when your true opin­ion is that some overdue profit taking might cause a mild inter­mediate reaction in stock prices. Yet when radio crooners and un­specialized announcers herald the day’s occurrences at the security market places, there is a discern­ible tendency among some to im­prove their ratings by exaggera­tion and by unwarranted sensa­tionalism.

The sub-surface trend runs deep. Syndicate salesmen of newspaper features advise distinguished con­tributors to “write for the crowd.” This is a mandate for oversimpli­fication and for gilding the lily. There is too little concern for stimulating others to go through what the late Graham Wallas called “the painful task of think­ing.” In the craze for quantity merchandising, even superior word usage is discouraged on the theory that other than primitive language will narrow your audience. So what? In a good society, there is a multiplicity of audiences—one for Irving Berlin and another for Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Creative Role in Society

The passing public excitement and indignation over the rigging of quiz shows will get precisely nowhere in the way of construc­tive improvement unless we re­late the episodes to the larger problem.

To put the matter bluntly, if we are to survive as a free Republic in the battle for “competitive co­existence” with the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites, then we must respect an elite of crea­tive minds. While there is a role in our society for the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the tempo of our inventors, scientists, engineers, theoreticians, and ex­ecutives should not be slowed down to the pace of the lowest common denominator. In this con­text, there should be rising re­spect for quality radio and TV sta­tions whose listening audience may not be the largest, and for quality magazines of limited cir­culation, which keep the lamps of learning lit.

Those who are aware of the trend of the new competition for survival should not retard their constructive inquiries because of the slow-wittedness of the un­aware. In the free market place for ideas, there must be venturesomeness and risk taking. It is stultifying to inhibit dreams until the dullest minds regard such new concepts as self-evident.

The blazoning forth of the ban­ners of mediocrity is a reflection of misguided political leadership. New Dealers, Fair Dealers, Double Dealers, mixed economy advocates, modern Republicans, and others have set back the processes of civilized progress by pandering to mediocrity.

The Glorification of Mediocrity

The downgrading of public taste is closely related to the drift toward a “welfare state.” Despite the political blue-sky appeal be­hind the question-begging term “welfare,” the collectivist formula for a “welfare state” is a devia­tion from an individual free choice society. The “welfare state,” being the antithesis of a merit system in which each is rewarded for his de­gree of excellence, is a device for assuring robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to unduly reward the inefficient and the unproductive. In its nature, the “welfare state” rests on boob appeal and glorifica­tion of mediocrity. Its advocates inevitably find themselves crusading against excellence.

From a short-term standpoint, such negativism had its maximum appeal when fear was rampant during the maladjustments and widespread unemployment in the years following the panic of 1929. If the nostrums had appeal under such abnormal circumstances, they are obviously ill-timed in a period of quickened economic develop­ment.

Outmoded Prejudices

Certainly the fallacious economic dogmas, concocted during the de­pressed early nineteen thirties, whatever their original merit or lack thereof, are today “old hat” in the context of high level em­ployment in the dynamic nineteen sixties. Progress is made by cour­age in shedding outmoded illusions and prejudices.

West Germany, in its stupen­dous economic recovery since the end of World War II, showed the social utility of pursuing the prin­ciples of freedom and prudent economics. West Germany, having earlier been through the inflation and socialist wringer, uncompro­misingly turned its back on soft money theories and collectivist doctrines, and recently the Social Democratic Party in Germany, heretofore fountainhead of author­itative doctrines of socialism, threw Marx out of the window, and the British Labor Party has similarly sought to achieve popu­larity through soft pedaling planks for government ownership. There have been like trends in France and in Italy.

Without regard to provincialism and special pleading, let’s encour­age our fellow citizens in this struggle for survival to put their best foot forward and to foster ex­cellence—not hamstring it. A great sermon, a stirring editorial, a revealing article, a fresh expres­sion in business or in the arts of man’s capacity for creativity and improvement—these are instru­ments of progress. Let’s not choke off creativity on the ground that tired, worn out, tested appeal themes are safer.

Do We Deserve To Survive?

Instead of measuring our sur­vival prospects in a vacuum, we should examine the more funda­mental question: “Do we deserve to survive?” If we answer this in the affirmative, then we need have no fear that economic slavery be­hind the Iron Curtain will be more productive than a free society. In our soul-searching, we should not confuse the labels of free individ­ual choice with the reality. We should give new and vigorous ex­pression to the libertarian philoso­phy, and should make clear that it provides the fountains and springs from which creative improvement flows.

In backing a free society, we should make certain that we are not kidding ourselves. We should re-examine the effect of fastening inharmonious collectivist ideas on a free society. We should take a fresh look at the effect of trade union equalitarianism on the phi­losophy and practice of an incen­tive system. We should study anew the human consequences of offset­ting incentives with a steeply graduated income tax, which tends to dilute material rewards. We should determine whether costly “feather bedding” is patriotic at a time when high productivity is the sine qua non for survival of the whole free world.

A Problem Everywhere

Obviously, this clash between excellence and mediocrity is not exclusively an American problem. Under Stalin, Russia attacked ex­cellence through murdering gen­erals—and later paid a price in military weakness when defending itself against Nazi Germany. And Hitler, in dismissing scientists be­cause of religious faith and politi­cal views, frustrated his own am­bition to dominate the world. Some of the deported creative minds accelerated pursuit of the splitting of the atom in this coun­try, and gave us the atom bomb before the enemy achieved it. Back in 1948, Eugen S. Varga, described at the time as the So­viet Union‘s number one econo­mist, suffered disgrace because his objective pursuit of knowledge brought him into conflict with the communist party line.

Varga wrote with extreme cau­tion, but he bucked the propaganda line. His conclusion that there was no necessary conflict between the economic interests of Soviet “so­cialism” and American and British capitalism in the first postwar dec­ade was intolerable to the Stalin­ists.

Varga was bringing the mes­sage that capitalism was not on the verge of collapse. He was un­frocked for such effrontery, though subsequent events have proven the correctness of his forecast.

What Varga said and wrote are of less significance than the fact that he as the head of the Russian Institute of Economics was not permitted to express his true thoughts, findings, and appraisals. The point is that Russian econom­ics was rigged just as quiz pro­grams were.

What a price the world pays for rigging. If the Russian Praesidium had listened to its expert, it might have avoided the cold war, and could have started, a decade and a half earlier, rapprochements for international cooperation, such as Nikita S. Khrushchev is now mouthing.

Appealing to the Best

The stakes are heavy in this matter of counterfeiting the coins of communication. To the econom­ically illiterate, the cost of calling gray black may seem trifling, but, in the race between civilization and catastrophe, it is important to respect the scientific approach.

When government steps in to dull the rewards for excellence and to supplement the productivity of the inept, it releases forces of savagery which retard progress. In a well ordered society, in which excellence is fostered, there is, of course, room for sweet charity, without encumbering the machin­ery for social progress.

But the processes of civilization are impaired when insincere poli­ticians, seeking votes at any price through boob appeal, or hucksters, looking solely at ratings, re-enact Gresham‘s law in a new area. Gresham admonished that “bad money drives out good” and, by the same token, uncritical worship of boob appeal stops the flow of information and inspiration to those capable of creative innova­tion.

In the circumstances, those who contribute a mite to upgrading public taste are on the side of the angels.



Ideas on Liberty


If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless, since their chief purpose is to make us bear with patience the injustice of our fellows.


The ethical image of competition as set forth by a com­pany in its sales promotion and advertising policies some­times does more harm than good—harm to its good name and ultimately to its net profits. The mere selling of goods can be carried out by any crook; it takes an organization with integrity to maintain such good customer relations that its word, spoken or written, rates as high as its financial bond.

H. A. TOULMIN, JR., Business 18 What You Make It