Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 663, March 25, 2012

"The system isn't broken.
It is working as it was designed to work.
The system is designed to keep the wealthy and
powerful in charge, and rolling in the dough.
The system is designed to keep you in servitude."

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by L. Neil Smith

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Once upon a time, there was an exceptionally clever fellow who called himself Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a hunchbacked dysplasic dwarf one biographer referred to poetically as "The Man Who Tamed Lightning".

There are stories about Steinmetz you'll never read on Wikipedia. It's said he never bathed, and chain-smoked big cigars all day. His office at what eventually became General Electric—a company founded almost entirely on his work—consisted of narrow aisles between books stacked up to the eighteen-foot tin ceilings they liked in those days.

It's also said the company employed an executive vice president whose only job was to talk Steinmetz out of resigning, something he threatened to do roughly twice a day. Reputedly quick to anger, the electrical genius did not suffer fools gladly, "fool" being defined as someone with less than the 200-plus IQ he was said to possess.

Born in Silesia, a province of Prussia, in 1865, Steinmetz died relatively young in Schenectady, New York, in 1923, at the age of 58, having almost single-brainedly created the entire electrical world of generators, transformers, and motors that we all take for granted today. Next time you bend down to plug in an electric cord, think of Steinmetz, who probably put the outlet down there so he could reach it.

In the 1950s, according to the great libertarian lecturer and author Robert LeFevre, a pack of G.E. junior executives were given a personality profile to contemplate, and then asked whether they would hire the man described in the profile. Their answer was a unanimous No!

The profile was of Steinmetz, the man who created their jobs.

Steinmetz wasn't difficult among those few he considered his equals. His two best friends were the same kind of giant he was, strong-willed and often controversial men of colossal achievement, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. There are photographs of the three walking together on property owned by the "Wizard of Menlo Park" on the east coast of Florida, at Fort Meyers (Ford was Edison's next-door neighbor) and incredibly funny snapshots of them doing what they called "camping" outdoors, complete with luxurious tents, hordes of servants, and a complete kitchen, serving meals on fine china and linen.

Another, possibly apocryphal, story says that one day, one of the gigantic electrical generators failed at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan automobile factory. Rather than mess with underlings, Ford wired his friend Steinmetz, who had designed the generator. Steinmetz arrived from New York by train, went to the site, and asked for a ladder and a hammer.

Leaning the ladder against the generator, Steinmetz laboriously climbed it, selected a spot on the massive casing, and whacked it with the hammer. The generator immediately began running again. Steinmetz climbed down, and Ford, who had accompanied him, said, "Send me your bill."

The next week, Steinmetz's bill showed up in Ford's office and came to $20,000, a literal fortune early in the 20th century. Ford, a famously penurious individual, wired Steinmetz: "$20,000 simply for hitting the generator with a hammer? Ridiculous. Kindly itemize this bill."

Steinmetz quickly wrote back, "For hitting the generator with a hammer, $5.00. For knowing where to hit the generator with a hammer, $19,995.00."

So what's the point to all this?

Well, look at it another way. When you're interested in eye-candy, when you want to examine a beautiful scantily-clad young woman or a handsomely-muscled cleft-chinned young man, do you care whether either of them can do differential equations? If you want to hear the world's best pianist, do you care whether he or she is Chinese, Republican, or gay?

Not if you're rational.

Lord Acton is most famous for writing, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." What a majority of people doesn't know is that the next sentence he wrote came down to "Most great men are bad men."

That's certainly true of intellectuals, as well, if I have read Paul Johnson correctly. Most great intellectuals are monsters. But do we care if Leo Tolstoy, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, (and we could certainly include Ayn Rand in this category) were monsters? Not when what we "hired" them to do is write novels, paint paintings or think philosophically. We judge them, instead, not on the way they treated their families or servants, but on how well they wrote, painted, or philosophized. I'll leave it to you to determine who passed and who flunked.

Most intellectuals are at least difficult, some because they were spoiled bastards to begin with, others because they can see things on the horizon that other individuals—most of them suffering only from a kind of self-inflicted blindness—can't or won't see. It makes the farsighted feel madly frustrated by, and isolated from, their own species.

I had a fairly brisk argument today with some good friends who nevertheless didn't get this extremely simple principle: if you want control over your own life and all the products of your life, and yet you move to limit the freedom of others around you in the name of some cause you deem worthy, then when others move to limit your freedom in the name of some cause they deem worthy, you have no right to complain. You cannot pick this or that right to nullify or uphold; there is, at the base of things, only one right, the right not to be molested by anyone for any reason, no matter how desirable the outcome seems.

I'm sure my friends find me difficult. If that's the case, so be it. None of us can be free until we learn to let go of other people's lives. Other folks find Ed Crane or J. Neil Schulman, or Jim Davidson difficult.

It's the occupational hazard of revolutionaries.

But my real point here is this: nobody ever "hired" me to be agreeable. People buy my books first, I think, to entertain them, and second, because I never swerve from what I believe is right. Most of my best friends are exactly like me in this regard, and we don't find each other particularly difficult (well, not very difficult, anyway), any more than Ford, Edison, and Steinmetz found each other difficult. (Ford eventually paid Steinmetz's bill.) Even when we disagree (which is moderately often) we remain on the same wavelength because we do agree on fundamental principles, the "Rules of Engagement", if you will.

Or even if you won't.

Look around you: 100 years from now, will anybody care whether Ayn Rand was a perfect bitch, or Sam Konkin bathed often enough, or Robert LeFevre reminded them of the snake-oil salesman at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz? Or will people remember, instead, the giant strides toward liberty taken by these three, and many others we all know?

While it's true that I would never hire a rapist, or any other initiator of force, or somebody who cheated on their spouse—a clear sign that they can't be trusted—it's equally important (and highly libertarian) to keep uppermost in mind what you really want from people.

And ignore everything else.

L. Neil Smith is the Publisher and Senior Columnist of L. Neil Smith's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE, as well as the author of 33 freedom-oriented books, the most recent of which is DOWN WITH POWER: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis:
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