In his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, written in tandem with the script for the epic movie of the same name, Arthur C. Clarke portrayed a pitiful band of pre-human primates in Africa, always on the brink of starvation, always prey for saber-toothed predators. Deaths from both causes were frequent. Yet these creatures were surrounded by hundreds of tons of food in the form of grazing animals. They just couldn’t see it.
The great leap— facilitated, in Clarke’s sci-fi story, by super-advanced extraterrestrials—occurred when a member of the band described as “Moonwatcher” had a vision of his fellows well-fed, fat, and satisfied. Now he was dissatisfied because he understood that hunger and soon-and-certain death need not be his lot. His vision led to an idea. He picked up a hard object and brought it down on the head of a slow-witted warthog; its meat became the first of many hardy meals to fill his belly and those of his band. And he had a weapon to stave off predators. Moonwatcher was a pioneer, and a few million years later humans were off to the Moon!
No doubt the human mind’s capacity to imagine and to innovate was the result of natural evolution rather than space aliens. But Clarke otherwise had it right.
It’s a distinct human attribute that we’re not stuck in the moment and with what always was. We can be pioneers.
The Pioneer Spirit
Pioneers are individuals who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Pioneers have a vision of something better beyond their immediate world and ways.
Pioneers take responsibility for their own lives and futures.
Pioneers exercise their independent judgment, often in opposition to conventional wisdom, using their ingenuity to come up with new ideas, inventions, innovations, or enterprises.
Pioneers are risk-takers who have the courage to travel down untrodden paths and into perilous territory to reach their goals. And as a result of their efforts, pioneers make life better and more fulfilling for themselves, and they make the world a better place for the rest of us.
Perhaps you yawn that yes, you’ve heard America described as a pioneer nation, but the days of covered wagons crossing the prairies are as gone as are our prehistoric ancestors. And those orbiting Hilton hotels might have been the projected vision in the movie 2001 but they certainly didn’t materialize when the actual year rolled around. So what does all of this pioneer stuff have to do with today?
Well, are you concerned that living standards in this country might have peaked and are now on their way down?
Concerned about your kids’ education? Wish you didn’t have to pay a pile of money for the most expensive houses in top-taxed neighborhoods so your little ones can go to above-average but still not-so-great government schools? Or that you are paying taxes for those schools plus lots of extra out-of-pocket bucks for better private ones?
Concerned that Obamacare will make the delivery of medical services as bad as services offered at your local motor vehicle administration?
Then you’d better hope that America has a pioneer-friendly future. But sadly, our pioneering culture is under assault and eroding. Let’s look at why and how.
Pioneers of Places
And let’s start with the fact that America is a nation settled by immigrants. Between 1860 and 1930, the foreign-born portion of the U.S. population averaged 13.6 percent. In 1910, some 14.8 percent or one in seven individuals in the United States was foreign-born. With native-born spouses of immigrants, children, and grandchildren, the portion of households and families that included immigrants was probably well over half the population. In 2003 it was an estimated 33.5 million people, or 11.7 percent of a population of 300 million, still a pretty high proportion.
America’s culture until recent times reflected the pioneer spirit of immigrants. All immigrants were dissatisfied with the poverty, repression, or lack of opportunity in the “old country” and sought something better. They wanted to own their own farms or businesses, to work for themselves, to be their own bosses, to live free.
Likewise, early pioneers literally risked their lives in long ocean voyages or in wagon trains heading west in the face of hostile terrain, weather, and natives.
And they had to be innovators on the spot, figuring out how to cross rushing rivers, deep canyons, or high mountains. They had to find food and water where little was available. They had to build shelters out of whatever they could find; those settling in treeless areas became sodbusters, cutting out blocks of the packed-down mud and decayed vegetation below their feet to construct their houses.
Pioneers of Products and Production
Of course, individuals could be pioneers and discoverers without traveling across physical frontiers. In America, innovators sought fortune and the joy of achievement by pioneering new products and inventions. Their inventions are so familiar and ubiquitous that we forget how they have transformed our world.
Benjamin Franklin invented a stove that heated American homes in the century that followed. He invented the bifocals that many of us wear on our noses to this day.
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone. Can anyone today imagine a world in which all communications are only via written letters, the dots and dashes of Morse code, or face-to-face conversations? Thomas Edison gave us the phonograph—it was the iPod of its day!—the movie projector, and electric light, as well as the electrical generating system and grid for wiring homes and businesses for power. When were you last in a blackout? Imagine a whole world like that!
Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile but he created a new way to manufacture them. He used standardized, interchangeable parts and, starting in 1913, a moving assembly line with workers at each station along the way performing a single function in a set order to cut the time for producing a single vehicle by over 85 percent compared to previous methods. This meant that millions of Americans could afford his cars.
In 1906 Willis Carrier gave us the air conditioner. Anyone living south of Minnesota or Vermont should build shrines in which to give thanks to this man for their cool comfort during the blazing summer months!
Steve Jobs gave us the personal computer when no one could imagine an alternative to huge, expensive mainframes or imagine why anyone but a handful of scientists would want computers anyway. Jobs has now given us those iPods, iPhones, and iPads, with no doubt more innovations with “i” in front of their names still on the way!
Pioneers of Distribution
Pioneers not only bet against conventional wisdom with their inventions. They also created new ways of getting goods and services to consumers.
In 1888 Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck published the first Sears catalog and soon millions of copies were distributed throughout the country. This allowed anyone in still-heavily-rural America to have access through the mail to a plethora of products unavailable in small, local general stores.
In 1962 Sam Walton opened the first Walmart to provide direct access to a wide range of products for those many small-town Americans not in reach of another great American innovation, the shopping mall. There are now 8,300 outlets.
In 1973 Frederick Smith began operations of Federal Express, to offer one of the few services—overnight or expedited emergency delivery—allowed as an exception to the government’s postal monopoly. As a college student Smith received a poor grade when he presented his student project plan for such a business. But he stuck to his independent vision and revolutionized express delivery.
With the computer and internet revolution Jeff Bezos went online in 1995 with Amazon.com as an alternative to brink-and-mortar bookstores; Kindles, Nooks, Kobes, and other e-book readers might soon make the paper versions obsolete.
And could there be an alternative to brick-and-mortar stores for Americans to purchase those PC computers that have revolutionized information and technology? In 1996 Michael Dell began selling computers that could be customized and ordered online for delivery directly to any home or business.
Precautions Against Pioneers
It might sound like the pioneer spirit is alive and well in America. In many ways it still is. Most Americans certainly desire better lives for themselves and appreciate the consumer products that flood our Best Buys. We are familiar with the wonderful end-products of this spirit. But many of us would do well to reflect, for example, upon the spirit of Silicon Valley that produced them. Reflect on all the discoveries and inventions, including the many trials and failures, that went into producing the communications and information revolution. Consider all the drives, switches, data storage devices, and software that go into any desktop, laptop, or handheld device.
Consider all the brain-power and imagination needed just to produce more efficient electronic data storage. Little plastic 3½” floppy discs, introduced in 1987, could hold 1.44 megabytes (MB) of data. Soon writable CDs could hold 650MBs or more. Blu-ray discs today hold 25,000MBs or 25 gigabytes (GB). Hard drives today can hold 1,500GB or 1.5 terabytes. The progress is dizzying!
But in spite of the pioneering spirit in sectors of the economy, country, and culture, that spirit is in serious danger from aspects of the culture and from government policies that reinforce the worst in one another.
To begin with, there is a growing risk aversion in the culture. The environmentalist movement is notable for giving us the so-called “precautionary principle.” This is the notion that if products or new production processes pose any sort of risks—often highly speculative or vague ones unsupported by any sound science—then such products or processes should be banned. The burden should be on the pioneer to prove that no harm to humans or, more often, to that floating abstraction called “the environment,” will result from their innovations.
We see excessive risk-aversion,too, in so-called “helicopter parents.” These are parents who hover over their children attempting to shield their kids from every risk, every discomfort, and every experience at which the child could possibly fail. They see dangers to their children everywhere. They restrict their children’s outdoor activities, where they can go, and with whom they can associate. They monitor and track their children’s activities like Big Brother.
It is understandable that in advanced, prosperous societies parents will attempt to protect their children from unnecessary dangers to health and safety. But obsessive attempts will ensure that children never become truly functioning adults and create a stagnant culture bereft of innovations. Imagine this culture of precaution in collision with the culture of Silicon Valley. Timid and frightened hearts can spin scores of scenarios of unknown perils lurking in every new idea. It is impossible for the innovator to prove a negative, to imagine every threat and then counter it.
The deadly effects of the precautionary principle are seen most starkly in the requirement that creators of new pharmaceutical products certify to the Food and Drug Administration not only that their products are safe but also that they are efficacious. The definition of this latter requirement often changes, for example, to include subjective notions like “economic” and “social” efficacy. The result is that it can take a decade to get new, life-saving products to market, at hundreds of millions of extra dollars in costs.
Further, thousands of individuals die while products that could save their lives are being tested yet one more time for efficacy. Some 119,000 Americans who might have been saved by the heart medication beta blockers died during that product’s seven year certification period. And 25,000 died of cancer during the three and a half year period for certifying Interleukin-2. Unwarranted precaution and a hostility to risk can be very risky indeed.
Equality before the law is a hallmark of the American legal system, and equal freedom to engage in economic activities with others based on mutual consent is the bedrock of a free market that facilitates pioneers.
But today we see in the culture the destructive effects of an obsession with equality of condition and outcome. This is often motivated by envy, which discourages entrepreneurial pioneers and can translate into destructive government policies.
In the 1990s, for example, as personal computers and internet access were spreading throughout the country, liberal politicians erroneously argued that we were becoming two Americas, a new elite with access to all the new technology and a permanent underclass, condemned to ignorance for lack of access to the technology of tomorrow. (Of course, most public libraries were putting in computer terminals with internet access that could be used for free by anyone. But, of course, one problem with the so-called underclass is that too few of them would take their kids to libraries in the first place.)
But there is a pattern for the spread of new products and technologies. At first they are available to more prosperous customers who can afford them. But soon competition brings down the price as quality rises. A look at the spread of technologies over the past century shows that access to PCs and the internet became affordable and available to all faster than did telephones or televisions. For example, it took 71 years for telephones to reach half of American homes, 52 years for electricity, and 28 years for radio, but only 19 years for personal computers and ten years for the internet.
Passivity vs. Pioneering
Another aspect of our culture that is contrary to the pioneering spirit was well illustrated in the 2010 movie Waiting for Superman. A teacher who was pioneering charter schools explained that when he was a child he experienced serious philosophical angst when his mother told him that Superman was not real but a fictional character. He had so hoped that a Superman would rescue him from his poverty-stricken, crime-ridden community.
Personal responsibility and independence in America’s culture are being replaced by attitudes of passivity and entitlement, of expecting and even demanding that others take care of one’s problems. Some style themselves as “victims,” not victimized by actual criminals, thieves, or state-enforced repression or discrimination, but generally victimized by an uncaring and unsympathetic world.
Political Power vs. Pioneering
Another threat to the pioneer spirit is, of course, resistance from those who are invested in the status quo. In an open and competitive market pioneers can prevail because no one is allowed to use force to stop them. But supporters of the status quo usually turn to the guns of governments to protect their inferior or failing ways.
The U.S. Postal Service only continues in existence in its current, inefficient, money-losing form because it has a government monopoly on delivering certain kinds of mail; it is tax-exempt, unlike FedEx and others that are allowed to compete in offering certain services; and it receives taxpayer handouts to cover financial shortfalls. Would you like to pioneer new ways of delivering mail, or bussing people around town, or running inter-city trains? You’re out of luck: those aren’t allowed.
Dumber vs. Smarter
In America education is a sector where the revolutionary efforts of pioneers are desperately needed and yet where government force protects the status quo in the name of a corrupt notion of equality that harms millions of children. During America’s early history parents educated their own children or local citizens set up schools. Now local governments run most schools, with attendance compulsory. Children today are assigned to schools based on where they live, and parents have little choice in the matter.
Teachers’ unions have a stranglehold on the system, making it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers much less allow educators to experiment with innovative ways of teaching. In the past three decades per pupil expenditures have doubled in real inflation-adjusted terms but test scores have flatlined. Twelfth graders in the United States now rank only sixteenth in science and nineteenth in math compared to kids in other developed countries at the same grade level. The horror stories of America’s inner city schools are too numerous, well-known, and stomach-wrenching to recite.
No wonder, then, that in the United States some 1.5 million students are homeschooled by parents who still pay taxes for government schools.
Many school districts now allow a limited number of charter schools, which are privately managed by educational pioneers and not subject to rule by union goons. Many have achieved stunning success. We also see a private, for-profit company, K12, that provides an entire online schooling curriculum as well as interactions with teachers. But educational pioneers struggle to make revolutions in the face of governments supporting a corrupt status quo.
What would American education look like if the government were to leave it to the private sector and to pioneers who are seeking new ways to teach children how to think and to give them the knowledge they need for happy, flourishing lives? Imagine that the dynamism and success seen in the information revolution were brought to this sector. Who would be the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of education? Schools might well cease to look like what they have been for the past hundred years.
Sicker vs. Healthier
Another sector where pioneers are desperately needed—yet more and more are pushed out— is the delivery of health care. For much of American history such services were provided privately, with insurance companies footing the bills for many catastrophic illnesses.
But in 1965 Congress enacted Medicare to cover the medical costs of retirees, and Medicaid, to cover costs for the poor. Private medical insurance for retirees disappeared within a year. Today annual Medicare costs are over $400 billion.
Medicaid costs are now at about $200 billion. Some 100 million Americans are covered by government programs, and the Federal government controls the largest portion of pricing for medical services. Insurance has been controlled heavily by state governments. But Obamacare plans to have the Federal government micromanaging insurance as well.
Many Americans are trying to get around the inefficiencies of this system. Today some three-quarters of a million Americans seek medical care in other countries, paid for out of their own pockets. In India, for example, there is a growing number of English-speaking physicians, often trained in Britain or the United States, who provide quality services at a fraction of the cost in the States.
In many American states, pharmacies are allowed to employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants to provide basic services such as examinations, treatments for minor injuries or illness, and vaccinations for fixed prices. This gives patients an alternative to often overcrowded doctors’ offices.
The internet offers the potential for consultations and services to be delivered anywhere at any time.
But physicians are licensed under rules mandated by state governments and cannot practice in other states without securing licenses there as well. Certainly all patients will require a personal visit to a physician for a hands-on check-up.
But what if physicians could offer services online and across state lines? What sort of system might some pioneer create to employ on-site exams plus remote diagnostics? Could there be a Sam Walton, a Jeff Bezos, or a Michael Dell who would set up a system that we can’t imagine right now but that could cut medical costs while delivering improved and timely treatments?
Fighting for Freedom to Explore
America’s pioneering spirit is still alive but is being worn down by a risk-averse culture that promotes the abrogation of personal responsibility and that promotes public consensus over independent judgment. It is worn down by the enemy of all progress and pioneers: an overweening and power-hungry government.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for pioneers in the future will be removing the barriers to various frontiers put up by governments. Perhaps what is most needed are political pioneers who will seek to educate the public, to work with think tanks, allies, and interest groups, and form coalitions that aim at radical results such as eliminating government schools. Now those would be pioneers worthy of comparison to Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison, who created this pioneer-friendly country to begin with!