Ideas October 2002

Lions and Foxes

Different times call for different virtues
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Let us return, you and I, to an era long ago and a culture far away: the late 1990s. It was a time when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, was named Time magazine's person of the year, and when a Web site named drkoop.com had a market valuation of more than $1 billion (it was sold in July for $186,000). It was a time when Silicon Valley was the epicenter of hubris. "We are at that very point in time when a 400-year-old age is dying and another is struggling to be born," Dee Ward Hock, one of the quintessential management gurus of that era, declared. Technology was going to drive us into a glorious new future. The old ways of doing things were irrelevant. "Experience is out," one of the founders of Fast Company magazine announced. "Inexperience is in." John Koa, at the time a professor at the Harvard Business School, instructed, "You must ruthlessly trash outmoded obstructions to creativity: standard operating procedures, protocols, norms of behavior." Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, caught the meme: "I'm not interested in anything else but the youngest, the brightest, and the very, very talented," he said.

Technomarxism was the ideology of the day. History was being propelled by ineluctable forces, unprecedented alignments, earth-shaking innovations and breakthroughs. Distance was dead. Hierarchy was finished. Those who didn't think outside the box would be consigned to the ash heap of history. Everyone had to be a rebel, a radical, or a visionary, or at least to talk like one. "Destruction is cool!" the management giant Tom Peters roared. "Think revolution, not evolution," a senior vicepresident of Home Depot advised. Apple Computer proclaimed itself the company for "The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers." Lucent Technology adopted the slogan "Born to Be Wild." Burger King's ads announced, "Sometimes You've Gotta Break the Rules."

As it turned out, some executives at Enron and elsewhere were doing just that.

What's clear, looking back, is that most of the people who led the information revolution were endearing ignoramuses. They were fired by hopes and dreams of a golden future—a "Long Boom," as Wired magazine prophesied. Their dreams motivated them to work harder, invest daringly, and create more, and thus were useful. The breakthroughs and the wealth generated during the 1990s weren't a mirage. There were real productivity gains, and we benefit from them today. (If you want to go back to a world not awash in cell phones, personal computers, laptops, or CDs, a world in which the Dow is at 3000, you are welcome to.) But there were aspects of human nature that the technogeeks knew nothing about. Distance was never going to be dead. Humanity was never going to be united by the all-encompassing embrace of the Internet. Evil, greed, and sin were not going to be magically expunged.

It wasn't just the technogeeks who misjudged matters. In hindsight, it's clear that the whole culture of America, and maybe of the Western world, was profoundly influenced by the boom psychology. Rising prosperity made the universe seem harmonious and beneficent. Bad behavior seemed to produce no bad consequences, because everything worked out in the age of accelerating profits. A President could demean his office, and nothing terrible happened. Foreign policy could be good or bad, but nothing disturbed the peace. The country just kept rolling along.

It came to seem that harmony and perpetual progress toward a limitless future were the natural order. Conflicts were coming to an end. The Cold War was freshly over. Peace was being created in Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East (or so it seemed). The only remaining wars were in historical backwaters such as the Balkans and Central Africa.

As a result, defense spending could be reduced, and warnings from such experts as Gary Hart, Warren Rudman, and Sam Nunn about our vulnerability to terrorism could be ignored. The cruel dilemmas of power politics could be regarded as optional. Political thinkers focused their attention instead on civil society and communitarianism, the hot topics of the 1990s. They argued that society's needs could be met by reviving voluntary organizations and compassionate and often faith-based local associations. We indulged in a fantasy of politics without power and strife. Meanwhile, partisans of all political persuasions came to see certain law-enforcement agencies more as menaces than as protectors. Conservatives turned on the FBI after Waco and Ruby Ridge. Liberals depicted New York cops as a bunch of racist thugs.

At first it seemed that September 11 had brought all that to a close. But by now it's clear that there has been a continuing series of hinge moments: the Enron collapse, the crisis in the Catholic Church, scandals in the financial markets. All these events have one thing in common: predators. People with some specific power—a weapon, the robes of authority, insider knowledge—used that power to kill, molest, or cheat the less powerful. So much for the age of harmony.

The key concept in the age we are entering now—a less technologically smitten but more historical-minded age—is authority. Gone is the dream of decentralized power. Less persuasive is the notion that information technology will weaken central institutions and empower individuals. In the 1990s organic thinking prevailed: the world was seen as a complex ecosystem, filled with an infinite array of feedback loops that all contributed to a sort of dynamic equilibrium. That world view has to make room for a little physics. If strong forces of evil are going to attack the weak, then good people have to organize some equal and opposite strong forces.

It's clearer now that we require public protection. For that we have looked to the institutions of central authority. The executive branch of government has become more important, as the President conducts a war against terror and contemplates a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. The FBI has become more important, and the scandals plaguing it more vexing, because suddenly we need those agents to find people who send anthrax through the mail or who are planning future hijackings or bombings. The Securities and Exchange Commission has become more important, because we need strong policing of the financial markets to keep them honest.

Suddenly movements are afoot to consolidate power rather than to disperse it. The Catholic Church has drawn up policies to crack down on predatory priests. The White House is trying to create a Department of Homeland Security, which would bring together a number of different agencies to help prevent terrorism.

Young people sense where the action is. The high-flyers no longer inevitably head for Silicon Valley, McKinsey, or Lazard Frères. Job applications to the CIA and the State Department are up dramatically. According to a poll conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland, 40 percent of college students say that they are considering a career in government—although that number drops sharply when students discover how long it takes to get hired by the federal bureaucracy.

The emphasis on authority has brought older leadership styles back to the fore. It's no accident that the country turned to people like Donald Rumsfeld and Rudolph Giuliani in the months after the attack on the World Trade Center. People who had seemed too confrontational, even obnoxious, suddenly came to be regarded as tough, no-nonsense leaders willing to bust heads to get things done. After watching a string of CEOs and corporate board members traipse into congressional hearings to claim that they didn't have a clue about what was going on in their own companies, suddenly we deem it important to have leaders who are aggressive, intrusive, and in control.

From the archives:

"Getting Hip to Squareness" (February 2002)
We want our virginity back. By Michael Kelly

The philosopher Leo Strauss once noted that the word "virtue," which in classical times meant "manly courage," had by the nineteenth century come to mean something very different—"female chastity." Different times call for different virtues. The age of harmony called forth leaders on the model of Bill Clinton—leaders who were flexible, charming, empathic, cooperative, and tolerant, leaders who saw the complexity of things and who erred on the side of indulgence. The era of authority calls forth leaders who possess the vigorous virtues—leaders who are often more solitary than social, who are stern, combative, contemptuous of self-indulgence, fiercely loyal to friends, and persistently hostile to foes.

Although these traits used to be considered hallmarks of manliness, many of the people who conspicuously embody them today are women. Coleen Rowley, the whistle-blowing FBI agent in Minnesota, wrote a slashing letter to the Bureau's director that was filled with rage at the passive incompetence of her superiors. Sherron Watkins, the whistle-blower at Enron, wrote a cold, sharp letter to Kenneth Lay, puncturing the dishonest fantasies of the people around her. These women had the guts to be not team players but angry, uncooperative, difficult, and duty-bound employees.

The new age sees new sorts of debates. First, how do we distinguish our legitimate power from their illegitimate uses of power? What moral language do we use to justify our use of force while condemning theirs? People raised on the language of self-interest or on the laxity of infinite tolerance have trouble making these sorts of discriminations.

Second, although we certainly need to concentrate authority, at what point does authority become too concentrated? To use Machiavelli's terms, the foxes argue that if too much power is vested in one agency, or if the United States acts unilaterally, liberties will be trampled and the fabric of international relations will be torn; the lions counter that the main danger comes from passivity—from failing to act and letting our enemies take the initiative. If we circumscribe our own strength, we let terrorism, tyranny, fraud, and corruption fester. Republicans tend to be lions when combating terror but foxes when fighting corporate abuse; for many Democrats the pattern is reversed.

It's easy from the vantage point of our present difficulties to feel superior to the paradise mentality of the 1990s—in fact, too easy. The reality is that we need both hope and experience in the cycle. We need seasons of hope to push us into the future, to pioneer innovations, to create new worlds and new dreams, to unleash new energies—energies that ultimately lead to new corruptions. Then we need seasons of experience to correct the excesses of the boom times. This is the only way we can move forward—swerving from one to the other, and bouncing periodically off the guardrails of our own good sense.

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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