“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘Faster horses.’ ”
So quipped Henry Ford about his success. Ford revolutionized transportation early in the 20th Century by making something available to everyone that previously only the wealthy could afford: an automobile.
Yet behind that quip lies a fundamental tension between individual genius and collective demands, between inspiration and conformity.
Genius sees potential. Conformity relies on routine. Genius demands innovation. Conformity demands inertia. Genius needs energy and freedom. Conformity feeds on apathy.
In Ford’s case, individual genius created new demands, as Thomas Edison did with electric lighting and as Orville and Wilbur Wright did with powered flight. Ford, a contemporary of all three men, channeled his creativity into numerous areas to write technological and social history. Ford’s assembly lines reduced the amount of time needed to produce one automobile from 12 1/2 hours in 1912 to 90 minutes just two years later. In the process, Ford stopped relying on independent contractors for parts and began making his own. He even built two plantations in Brazil to supply rubber. As a result, Ford could ship parts to his other factories in the United States.
Those innovations enabled Ford to reduce costs and to manufacture a simple vehicle that was easy to repair: the Model T. When Ford introduced the model in 1908, it cost $850, or $23,704 by today’s standards. By 1924, the price had fallen to $290, or $4,351 in today’s currency.
Ford also made strides in labor relations. Though he opposed unions, Ford set a minimum wage for his workers at more than twice the going rate, reduced working hours from nine to eight per day and introduced profit sharing for employees.
Ford’s innovations accelerated the development of smoother, safer roads that allowed drivers, passengers and cargo to arrive securely at their destinations. Faster horses not only would be unnecessary. They would become irrelevant.
By the same token, legitimate collective needs clash with self-benighted fanatics who wish to impose their ideas by force, as Eastern Europeans experienced late in the 20th Century.
Humanity’s innate need for freedom collided with Communism’s mind-numbing, totalitarian bureaucracy, one that stopped at nothing to impose its will. When not using domestic espionage and a rigged system of false justice, Marxist bureaucracy employed less violent means to impose mass conformity. It forced creativity into narrowly-defined ideological boxes, declared political opponents to be mentally ill and used propaganda to bludgeon an increasingly cynical, hopeless populace.
Nevertheless, numerous social outliers — ranging from such famous people as Vaclav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Masur, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner to thousands of anonymous resisters — retained their dignity, which provides the spark that ignites inspiration.
When Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) to make the Soviet economy more accountable, he inadvertently poured new wine into old wineskins. The entire system collapsed, not only in the Soviet Union but throughout Communist Europe. Citizens no longer had to conform to artificial social demands reflecting an inhuman ideology.
Ironically, the man who created that ideology believed it would secure material happiness for all. In his own way, Karl Marx could be viewed as innovative and energetic as Henry Ford. But why did Ford succeed while Marx failed? Marx and his acolytes viewed their ideology as the only way to social progress. Therefore, even suggestions of minimal change — especially if the political apparatus did not vent those suggestions — could be viewed as treacherous. Marxism, ostensibly designed to meet legitimate material need, instead stifled those needs. The ideology, its leaders and their sycophants became more important than the people they claimed to serve.
Ford had as much confidence in his approach to transportation as Marx did in his toward societal improvement. But Ford neither tried to impose his methods on an entire industry nor forced people to buy his cars. He never viewed himself as more important than his customers, workers or contractors.
The inherent tension between innovation and conformity always will exist. Perhaps, however, negotiating the tension involves incorporating human freedom, dignity and personal humility into the process.