Saturday, June 26, 2010

Freedom to Choose Impacts Performance

In Search of Excellence CoverOne of my favorite all-time business books is “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. In the introduction they discuss an experiment in psychology that highlights (by my analysis) why when government increases its control over society in an attempt to improve the performance of the free market or education or ... performance degrades. Here is the quote:

“An experiment in psychology consistent with this major field of inquiry underscores the point. Adult subjects were given some complex puzzles to solve and a proofreading chore.Adult subjects were given some complex puzzles to solve and a proofreading chore. In the background was a loud, randomly occurring distracting noise; to be specific, it was 'a combination of two people speaking Spanish, one speaking Armenian, a mimeograph machine running, a desk calculator, and a typewriter, and a street noise -- producing a composite, non-distinguishable roar.' The subject were split into two groups. Individuals in one set were just told to work at the task. Individuals in the other were provided with a button to push to turn off the noise. 'a modern analog of control -- the off switch.' The group with the off switch solved 5 times the number of puzzles as their cohorts and made but a tiny faction of the number of  proofreading errors. Now the the kicker: ‘... none of the subjects in the off switch group ever used the switch. The mere knowledge that one can exert control made the difference.’”

The mere knowledge that we have control over our circumstances increases our performance. The corollary of course would be that not having control (or perceived control) diminishes our output. The freedoms outlined in the founding documents of our country (i.e. the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) are not merely words but the articulation and embodiment of true principles. If we would restore, maintain, and defend these principles I believe we could overcome almost any adversity, including those we face today. Daniel Webster summed up this sentiment and concluded with a prediction of what would happen if we did not maintain our Constitutional form of government  in a speech entitled “Eulogy on Washington”, given on February 22, 1832. (Download the entire speech -Google Books, PDF, Word.

Daniel Webser“Other misfortunes may be borne, or their effects overcome. If disastrous war should sweep our commerce from the ocean, another generation may renew it; if it exhaust our treasury, future industry may replenish it; if it desolate and lay waste our fields, still, under a new cultivation, they will grow green again, and ripen to future harvests. It were but a trifle even if the walls of yonder capitol were to crumble, if its lofty pillars should fall, and its gorgeous decorations be all covered by the dust of the valley. All these might be rebuilt. But who shall reconstruct the fabric of demolished government? Who shall rear again the well proportioned columns of constitutional liberty? Who shall frame together the skillful architecture which unites national sovereignty with state rights, individual security, and public prosperity? No, gentlemen, if these columns fall, they will be raised not again. Like the Coliseum and the Parthenon, they will be destined to a mournful, a melancholy immortality. Bitterer tears, however, will flow over them, than were ever shed over the monuments of Roman or Grecian art; for they will be the remnants of a more glorious edifice than Greece or Rome ever saw—the edifice of constitutional American liberty.”

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