Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Different Mindsets

Most of us know about Benjamin Franklin's kite. He showed that lightning is an electrical phenomenon. Based on that theory Franklin invented the lightening rod to protect people's homes. He had the curiosity of a scientist combined with the practical mind of an inventor. In fact had he not been so famous as a statesman he would be famous for his scientific and creative endeavors.

Over a hundred and thirty years later the great German scientist Heinrich Hertz showed that radio waves are electromagnetic. He produced a scientific paper. It was left to Marconi in Italy to turn that knowledge into a practical radio – and Marconi had to go to England to get financial support for his invention. Though Hertz's paper was valuable in terms of scientific knowledge, he had no apparent interest in putting it to practical use.

I believe those two events illustrate a difference between what we might call the European and American mindsets. I suspect the difference comes from our respective histories. Europeans have a tradition of class structure with the aristocracy not stooping to manual labor or to such mundane things as engineering or invention. Why should they? They had servants to take care of everything. Because of that it was easy for the Europeans to think of practical labor as the province of the lower classes, people who were not as good as the dukes, princes and other aristocrats. In some cases anyone there who engages in practical work will suffer a lower status.

The U.S., on the other hand, explicitly rejected any form of aristocracy. The belief that “all men are created equal” allows for no inherited class structure. Our constitution allows any citizen to aspire to any office. (It is said that any baby born in the U.S. could become president and that is just one of the risks he takes.) A people who had to survive in an untamed land tended to have more respect for practical skills than for noble birth. In fact our first president was a farmer and by all accounts a very good one. George Washington continually sought ways to improve production on his farms.

This mindset is undoubtedly behind many of the differences between the U.S. and Europe described in Hannan's book The New Road to Serfdom which I reviewed earlier. It is easier for the Europeans to accept elite that will rule without direction from the masses. With a history of regarding the king as God's anointed, it is easier for them to adopt the statist attitude that government is the source of wisdom.

However if we believe that we are all created equal we usually accept the corollary that we should all have an equal voice in how we are governed. We are more likely to reject the quangos Hannan describes and to form movements such as the Tea Party.

Of course this is not a 100% separation. There have been European inventors and there are Americans who consider the intellectual life a higher form of existence than working for a living. However in general Europeans are less likely than Americans to ascribe high status to the practical inventor and Americans are more likely to demand that their government listen to them. With this difference in mindset is it any wonder that Europeans often regard the U.S. as having a “cowboy” attitude while we often regard them as cowards?

This is something we should keep in mind as President Obama and others seek to have us emulate Europe. Do we really want to hand our thinking and government over to quangos or even to elected officials with unlimited power? I know my answer to that question.

1 comment:

ZZMike said...

"Europeans have a tradition of class structure with the aristocracy not stooping to manual labor or to such mundane things as engineering or invention."

On the other hand, we look at Volta's 'piles' (batteries), Leyden jars, Wimshurst machines, Leonardo's models, all the way back to the Romans' arches.

I think the real reason Americans achieved is something I read recently in a couple of places (my books are not to hand, and I can't remember precisely). It was the principle, started in Victorian England, and carried on here, that a man should profit from his intellectual labor. In the Old Days, you invented something, it got picked up by your patron (think of the Brandenburg Concertos - still not called Bach's Concertos). No sooner did that come around than out of the woodwork came the Victorian engineers, like Isembard K. Brunel, and a host of others, and over here Franklin (whose 305th birthday comes up pretty soon), Whitney, Edison, ... - all of whom profited from their work, and used those profits to build industries.

I certainly agree with your last paragraph. Obama seems determined to have us follow Europe down the Path of Good Intentions.

I'm still waiting for a chance to read Hannan's book. At least there is one small voice of sanity in that crazed land.