All Commentary
Sunday, June 1, 1975

The Pursuit of Excellence

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

The phrase has a fine, challenging ring to it — the pursuit of excellence. Nearly everybody responds to the dare of it. To excel, to exceed, to outdistance, to be master of a situation, or of a technique, or of a medium — this urge has been a great stimulus to growth and achievement, and men have responded to it as far back as we have any record of their emotions and motivations.

About the time of Christ, Publilius Syrus was lamenting how long it took to bring excellence to maturity; and Sophocles, some 400 years earlier, fretted because people didn’t know the excellence of what they possessed until somebody took it away from them. Browning, on the other hand, attributed the growth of excellence to a whim of “the Great Gardener” — a kind of grafted-on gift from heaven, rather than an attainable goal that men might strive for.

Of late the pursuit of excellence has tended to be thought of principally as an academic matter, and students have been frequently and somewhat tiresomely exhorted to adopt it as their aim. And that is all well and good, to the degree that it may help set a productive life pattern. But to limit the pursuit of excellence to the classroom is as futile as it is to assume (as is often done) that education itself is exclusively an academic process. Actually, the ceremony of a graduation, the acquisition of a coveted degree in some discipline of learning — these events are but the initial milestones along the way toward the balanced intellectual fulfillment that constitutes an education.

A Life-Process

The concept of education as a life-process is well expressed in an episode related by Jean Renoir in the excellent biography of his father which he published some years ago. After the long struggle that led finally to general recognition and acclaim, Pierre Auguste Renoir grew old and became ill. In time he lost the use of his right hand through crippling rheumatoid arthritis, and at 60 he taught himself to paint with his left hand. But by the time he was 70 that hand also was so deformed that he could no longer hold the brushes normally, but had to wedge them between his permanently clenched fingers. Yet he painted on, still experimenting, still striving for perfection. And on the day he died, he asked for his palette and a canvas and, sitting propped up in bed, he worked for several hours on what was to be his last bit of painting. And as he finished it, he said to his son, “You know, Jean, I think I am beginning to understand something about it!”

That was one man’s pursuit of excellence, as it applied to the art of painting. Other craftsmen have been equally assiduous in their special fields: the sculptor who makes and destroys many models in his quest for perfection; the poet who scribbles and discards through many a midnight to achieve the right phrase or a felicitous rhyme; the naturalist who experiments for twenty years to produce a new rose; the dramatist who writes and rewrites, even after his play has been produced; the research scientist whose 150th laboratory experiment may be only half way along the road to a final discovery that shall benefit mankind. These and their spiritual comrades in many fields are seekers after excellence.

In Search of Freedom

But what of us who labor in a realm that is no less vital and should be equally demanding? It is our purpose, we say and believe, to express and defend and interpret the spirit of freedom, which we are convinced is of vast importance to the human family. This is truly a high calling, and should require of its followers the same devotion to excellence that we demand of others in their various fields. But this is not always easy to encompass, for while freedom is an appealing abstraction, it is so related to material things that we are apt to express it in physical terms, and so lose half the battle of ideas at the outset.

Thus if we merely assert that people ought to be free from burdensome taxation, we can be accused of poor citizenship — of having an unsportsmanlike desire to shirk our fair share of the cost of government. About such matters we need to be explicit. We are not opposing the idea of taxes as such. They are necessary to defray the costs of government, which in turn is a human necessity. The point is that we object to having the power to tax used whimsically and arbitrarily, to finance ventures that are outside the proper realm of government, and that may be of no benefit whatever, either to the individual taxpayer, or to society as a whole.

The Example of Foreign Aid

We can add that we object to being taxed to support an ever-expanding bureaucracy that has grown up about agencies that were supposed to be temporary, to meet some emergency, real or fancied, but that tend to be perpetual. One example out of many that might be cited is our experience with what may be lumped under the general head of Foreign Aid. It started in 1946 as the Marshall Plan. Its purpose was to help rehabilitate western Europe, mainly France, Germany, England and Italy, after the ravages of World War Two. A plausible case could be made for this, aside from humanitarian considerations, on the ground that these countries, with Belgium and the Netherlands, were the economic backbone of western Europe, whose continuance as industrial nations was essential to the western world — and also because they were very large users of American goods and services. The original idea was to help these nations at a total cost of about $32 billion — a sum that was vast, but supportable. Once they were on the way to recovery the Marshall Plan would go out of business. Or so it was assumed.

Erosion of Freedom

But what happened? Instead of phasing out, Foreign Aid became a cornerstone of American foreign policy, and is still in business after nearly 30 years and several reorganizations, including five changes of name. And the cost? I have not checked it for the purpose of this article, because we are not concerned here with statistics, but with the torrential inertia of governmental programs, once they get started. But if you like figures, the latest I have at hand show that this program has cost the American taxpayer at least $171 billion.

This is not written as an argument against foreign aid as such. Clearly there can be cases where a loan or even an outright grant to certain countries may be in our national interest. But one can only look with dismay and unbelief at the list of some 120 countries all over the world to which our country has poured out all these billions.

Why dwell on such matters? Because they are part of the erosion of freedom that accompanies accumulating and unamortized debt — a debt, in our case, that is now temporarily pegged at a possible $500 billion, with a deficit for the current fiscal year estimated at around $50 billion! But why worry about so crass and materialistic a thing as mere dollars? One very good reason (and this gets us at once to the relationship between freedom and physical things) is that dollars are what we use to buy food and clothing and pay bills; and when the value, i.e., the purchasing power, of those dollars is eroded or destroyed through debt-induced inflation, our freedom to live without threat and fear of bankruptcy has been reduced and may ultimately be destroyed.

And freedom is the essential condition, not only for happiness, but for achievement and progress. Its denial or curtailment is the precursor of social and economic stagnation, and often of personal degradation. Man, of course, has never been wholly free from the inner tyranny of his own nature; but granting that, it is true that he has attained to the highest levels of happiness and both material and social progress in those eras of time when he has enjoyed the largest degree of personal and political freedom.

But freedom, unfortunately, is not a constant of the human condition. It comes—and, alas, it goes. It is gained, usually at pain of sacrifice and struggle — and it is lost, often through sheer carelessness with respect to life’s political and economic realities. Nations have grown great and powerful, and they have sickened and died; and the malady which laid them low has often been the failure of their own people to understand, prize, enjoy and protect that vital, intangible thing called freedom.

Lack of Vigilance

At various times in human history men have walked erect and unafraid through streets in which their not-too-remote descendants —sometimes, indeed, their own grandchildren, or even their own children—would cringe and wither under tyrannical laws and conditions. At times, of course, such conditions of disaster were imposed by foreign conquerors; but often they resulted from intellectual and moral sloth and the unwillingness to make the sacrifices and exercise the vigilance that are the price of freedom — or even, indeed, to understand that such a price is demanded.

And the loss or curtailment of freedom is not always a disaster of the remote past. In our own times we have seen it happen. Some of the nations that were great only fifty years ago are now reduced to near-bankruptcy or vassalage. Others have been brought down until they are only debt-ridden, tottering relics of their former greatness, whose people are burdened with confiscatory taxes and stifled with repressive laws and bureaucratic regulations. And why? Did they do this voluntarily? Yes, alas — but not intentionally. I mean they voluntarily took certain actions, or permitted them to be taken, in what they thought was for the general good; but they certainly did not intend to bankrupt their country or impoverish themselves in the process.

Unintentional Injuries

Nowhere that I know of is there any evidence that a great people chose deliberately to be less great, or that a free people elected to be less free. The measures that have led to their abasement — to debt, inflation and smothering statism —have usually been quite cheerfully adopted by the people themselves through action by their elected representatives, all for the greater glory. Nobody that I am aware of in England ever said, in effect, Look, fellow Britons, let us become a second-rate power; or See here now chaps, let us tax ourselves until we stifle our economy. Nobody in Sweden, I believe, ever suggested to the enterprising people of that country that they should tax themselves to economic death for alleged social benefits. Instead, the English Fabians and their Swedish counterparts proposed only to improve the condition of life for all the people. Juan Domingo Peron never, so far as I am aware, threatened or intended to destroy the money and cripple the economy of Argentina; he was just going to do something for the “descamisados.” Salvador Allende, being a devoted Communist, may have intended to bankrupt Chile; but he never said so. His purpose, he said, was to improve the lot of the common people. And so on and on, through the list of good intentions that have paved the hell of inflation, bankruptcy and the death of freedom, for much of mankind.

What is it that humankind has striven for, down the long centuries of its life? Out of the instinct for self-preservation, plus the promptings of a deathless hope, the slowly emerging phylum of the human species has been groping… for perfection! In a strange, blind, sometimes pathetic, but persistent way it, too, has been engaged in the pursuit of excellence — the excellence of a better and richer life.

A Magnificent Quest

And what a magnificent quest it has been! Of its earlier stages we know little and must rely on the patient digging and informed conjectures of the archeologists and other delvers into the past. If we express the lifetime of the human race as a year, then we have dependable historic record of only a few hours, or maybe minutes, of the long ascent. But both the evidence of history and the deductions of paleothnology offer a record of tenacity, adaptability, courage, and an ultimate awareness of man’s need for carefully formulated and generally accepted rules for the complicated business of living together on the Planet Earth.

This led inevitably to the concept of government — an agency that would protect members of one tribe from aggression by other, and hostile, tribes. In time it assumed also the function of internal guardianship — the protection of individuals within the tribe against the acts of unruly and aggressive fellow tribesmen. Thus the police function — and power —developed, a power that was both necessary and dangerous. Many governmental forms, no doubt, came and went as the centuries drifted by — tribal chieftains, elders, committees, councils. In time these devices evolved into kings, assemblies, parliaments, congresses. Government would undergo refinements— and abuses. Men would fight and die to maintain it… or to overthrow it. Enlightened chieftains ruled benignly; wicked ones enslaved their subjects.

Contradicting Drives

Through it all, man held to one basic idea. As was said of prayer in the old hymn, it was his soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed — namely, to be protected… and to be let alone. But this involved a fundamental contradiction which inhered in his nature: he wanted to be let alone, but he didn’t want to let others alone! Simple laws for protection of life and property were well and good, but they were not enough. Men needed — other men, that is — needed a certain amount of guidance. Developing religious beliefs provided such guidance in the moral sense. Every faith generated its table of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, these being ethical concepts arrived at in the various stages of man’s development. And in time these rules or precepts, having evolved into articles of faith, found expression in law.

But even these did not satisfy the strong desire of man to mold others to his moral and political will. Obsessed by a passion for religious freedom, he did not hesitate to impose his beliefs on others, not only by the weight of ecclesiastical canons, but by the compulsions of law. Determined to be politically free, and willing to fight and die for that principle, he has also been quite willing, with no apparent recognition of his inconsistency, to deny that same freedom to others. Anxious to be “let alone,” he has erected state mechanisms that bind others against their will and judgment—and in the process he has bound himself. Fearing and indeed abhorring debt in his personal affairs, he has time and time again pushed his governments into insolvency, and in doing so has impoverished himself.

Much Has Been Achieved

Yet he is not to be condemned too harshly for these inconsistencies. In the relatively short time that he has lived on this Blue Planet he has achieved greatly. The matter of mere survival itself is a test that has defeated many another form of life. Gigantic creatures flourished for a time, but died finally through their inability to adapt; and their fossilized bones are their only bequest to the modern world. But man has survived. Century by century, he lives longer, and he lives better. He is the thinker and the rememberer. Moreover, he is the dreamer and the singer of songs. He is the creator of things outside himself. He has written great books, carved heroic sculptures, painted inspiring pictures, composed deathless songs, built great commercial and industrial processes. By courageous trial and bitter error he has lifted a species of life to the pinnacle of organic achievement.

He is arrogant in his assumptions of superiority and infallibility, and in his incessant efforts to mold and regulate the lives of his peers. In this endeavor, by the ceaseless extension of the State and its powers, he may yet destroy the great structure of freedom that he has dreamed of. But his rationality and self-interest are strong and will probably yet triumph over his compulsion to guide, direct and rule. His greatest and most important field of conquest is still… himself.

Finally, he has dared greatly, most of all perhaps in imagining that he himself is cast in the very image of God — an assumption which is probably the ultimate in the pursuit of excellence.

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