Imagine If Bernard Baruch Could Advise Yet One More President

Guest Post by Stan Altman, Baruch College, New York City

The current turmoil that is gripping the U.S. with the change in administrations has revealed deep-seated divisions across our country.  The new presidential administration’s lack of experience in government and the desire to make radical changes in how the U.S. is governed, raise many questions about the direction the country is going, both at home and abroad.  As I reflect on the current state of affairs, I wonder what advice Bernard Baruch would have for our leaders.

bernard-baruch-c-1910

Baruch was a prolific speaker. In looking over his many speeches, I came across two that I found germane to the subject at hand. The first was a speech he delivered at Johns Hopkins University on February 22, 1933 entitled Leaning on Government, and the second was delivered on May 11, 1950 at the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the City College School of Business and Civic Administration[1]. Many of his observations apply to the struggles we face today in higher education and in the governance of the United States. Therefore, I will take the liberty of including whole passages from his speeches to share with you.

Thomas Jefferson believed that, “Democracy demands an educated and informed electorate,” and that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. . . .Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”[2]

Bernard Baruch was a strong advocate for quality education.  In his speech at City College he decried the overspecialization that had taken hold in higher education. He observed that, “With over-specialization has come a tendency to mistake information for education, to turn out ‘quiz experts,’ who are crammed full of useful detail but who have not been trained how to think.” He understood that critical thinking was essential if American democracy was to flourish. He believed that the lack of critical thinking skills was not only a defect of educational institutions but also the Federal Government:

Washington today is a dismaying example of (John) Dryden’s observation about those who think too little and talk too much.  For five years, we have been engaged in a mighty struggle for peace and survival — the cold war.   Yet nowhere are all the tangled strands of that struggle brought together in one place to be woven into a unified global fabric. We continue to stagger from crisis to crisis, with the initiative left to the enemy. We  remain too obsessed with today’s details to think through the bold strategy so vital for   tomorrow. What is lacking is not so-called ‘information.’   There has never been so much ‘news,’ so many statistics, so many alleged ‘real inside stories.’  Yet the public has never   been more confused. …We appear to have lost our ability to distinguish between the true and the false, the good and the evil. This dual educational failure — the failure to instill in students the ‘know how’ of thinking and the disciplined grounding in ethics — is all the more tragic because never were these two qualities in greater need.

Baruch Time Magazine

Bernard Baruch on the cover of TIME magazine, June 28, 1943.

Another issue Bernard Baruch raised was that of public morals:

That ours is a well-intended confusion is significant.  It indicates that the failure of our     educational system is a double one — of bad moral habits as well as bad thinking habits. I refer to morals in the broadest, ethical sense.   Too many people seem to regard good morals and good intentions as the same thing. 

Morality rests upon values — what we regard as good and evil, what we live for, what we      would die for.  Without such values, everything would be reduced to a cynical zero. …Morality… requires both good intentions and the strong backbone of self-discipline.  Yet how many of our schools and teachers attempt to teach values without discipline! 

Some of you who look to government action as the cure-all for our numerous ills may be startled by this statement — that our moral problems will grow more acute the more the   government undertakes to do. With the revolt against the old laissez-faire do-nothing government philosophy has come a sense of community responsibility for the individual   welfare, and rightly so. Civilized society cannot survive the jungle law of fang and claw, with its ruthless survival of the fittest.

Bernard Baruch thought the growing role of the Federal government was a result of the increasing urbanization of America.  In a speech at Johns Hopkins University on February 22, 1933 titled Leaning on Government” he wrote:

We must recognize that the independence possible to a frontier community must be           continually clipped as society becomes more complex and specialized.  Great numbers can congregate only at the expense of continually greater donations of individual freedom to the common good.  There is always sure to be conflict between the demand for liberty and the necessity for its sacrifice.  Some concepts of our fathers must be modified, but few of our departures have been made on this account.

The role of the Federal Government expanded beyond concerns for national security:

(The) do-nothing government is dead.  Virtually every phase of economic life is subject to some government intervention or regulation.  The issue we now face is whether, as some say, community responsibility should be everything — and individual responsibility nothing.  This doctrine ignores the human law that there are limits to the burden a community can carry.   There is a point of no return beyond which government intervention and the lack of responsibility among non-producers slow down all production and defeat their own purposes.

Is there to be no line beyond which government shall not go, as it is in Soviet Russia, and     becoming so in socialistic England?  Is government action to be prompted by the sheer expediency of whichever greeds or pressure groups appear strongest at the moment?  Or is it to be subject to higher ethical restraints, and if so, what are they to be?

Under the old philosophy of do-nothing government, it was not necessary to define or regulate social relations in detail.  It was assumed that if each individual looked after his   own interests, the end result, through a Darwinian process of natural selection, would be     for the general good.  That age had never met Hitler.

With government regulation, we now must consciously define man’s relations to his neighbors, of the various segments of society to one another.   To consciously regulate ourselves poses enormously greater problems than when taking things for granted, trusting to the automatic workings of competition.

Everywhere in the world today there is change.  Nowhere is there peace.  When I was a    student here at City College, it was taken for granted that change was good, that change meant progress.  None of us can believe that any longer. All of us have seen that change can be bad and oppressive.

The world is always in need of leadership.  Today the need is for self-disciplined   leadership.  With the training you have received here and the self-discipline which can only come from your own souls, you will find open to you positions of ever greater trust and responsibility — positions in which you, holding firm to the values and freedoms we cherish, can join in leading this country towards peace and a fuller life.

I would add to Bernard Baruch’s call for individual leadership the need to accept social responsibility for our actions, whether as an individual or a corporation. In particular, social responsibility is a growing movement in the corporate sector and reflects a more enlightened view by corporate leadership in a number of areas: the environment, philanthropy, volunteer programs and ethical labor practices. I imagine that Bernard Baruch would smile at these developments and urge us all to do more to lead America “…toward peace and a fuller life (for all).”

[1] New York City’s Board of Higher Education voted to convert the School to an independent senior college, Bernard M Baruch College, effective July 1, 1968.

[2] Padover, Saul K., Thomas Jefferson on Democracy. New York: Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1939, p. 89

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