Criticism of America’s institutions and the results they yield precede America herself. The fact that someone has found disappointment in her political and economic system does not preclude the success or very real progress which that system has shown possible to the world in less than three centuries. The “fast food” workers’ strike underway in a handful of cities during peak service times, instigated by the Service Employees International Union, demanding a $15 minimum wage, makes this clear. Unreasonable expectations are also reiterated by another Hollywood rehashing of the “haves” versus “have-nots” paraded by Matt Damon. The problem, as with most criticism, is that such disappointments are not grounded in knowledge or reason but as Coolidge would say on an August day ninety-one years ago, “a considerable part of discontent is the result of their not thinking their problems through.” Unrealistic expectations of either our political or economic structures do not move us any closer to a logical understanding of the problem’s roots or how to fix them, if they need fixing. Usually, the problem lies not with the institutions but with expecting more out of someone or something else than can be provided. Material things will never remove the difficulties of life, as Coolidge also noted on that same August day. Obtaining more will never free anyone from responsibilities. The efforts demanded by greater rewards only grow. Ultimately, we will forever be disappointed if we expect more of others than we require of ourselves.
“The word democracy is used very inaccurately. It is often taken to signify freedom and equality. Many have thought it represented an absence of all restraints. Others have considered it as providing a relief from all duties. The people of America have long been committed to democracy…The easy way to understand what may be expected of it is first to understand what it is. There has never been any organized society without rulers…The important factor to remember is that it has always required obedience. Democracy is obedience to the rule of the people.” That rule is not a utopian dream of complete equality of outcomes but stems from a code of laws comprising both political and economic constants. They are established by rules of human nature and apply to all alike. One will not defy such rules with any success for long.
“One of the great tragedies of American institutions is the experience of those who come here expecting to be able to rule without rendering obedience. They have entirely misconceived the meaning of democracy. But they need not disturb its defenders. To cast it aside could only mean the acceptance of a type of rule which had already been discarded.” It could only result in a return to despotism, in other words. Those who insist on having without giving first completely miss the point. Those who demand the power to rule without fulfilling the duty to obey the laws are likewise blind. When the emphasis is entirely upon what is entitled at the expense of what is required one will not retain freedom for long. As Coolidge understood, “the criminal,” the one who breaks these laws with impunity, “loses all his freedom.” Put another way, the rendering of better service is what truly liberates and lifts.
Our institutions are only as strong as our people. We cannot find fault with them and hope for improvement without raising the standards of our own efforts. “It depends on their ability both to rule and to obey. It is what they are. The government is what they make it.” If we expect our neighbors to pay us more, increase our earning power, it means we take on more obligations in our work. We will not get what we do not put in. If we merely assert the “right to rule,” and forget the “obligation to obey,” we will be disappointed in our lot. America has not let us down. We have, if we forget responsibility accompanies reward.
Healthy economies are cooperative and collaborative ones. Contrary to Bentham and those who laid the ground for socialistic discontent, markets function properly when we work together to build something better and give a higher quality of service. After describing the series of efforts at all levels that go into making a successful product or service, Coolidge reminds us, “Unto each who contributes in accordance with his ability there is due equal consideration and equal honor. There is no degradation in industry; it is a worthy enterprise, ennobling all who contribute to it. It will be successful in accordance with the opportunity given for the development of all the powers of mankind and the acceptance of the obligation alike to rule and to obey” (emphasis added).
The discontent then tries to eradicate what cannot be discarded: “[t]he law of life, the law of progress,” which is simply another name for “the law of obedience, the law of service.” Coolidge, addressing the Babson Institute (now Babson College), a newly opened business school, in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, left his audience that August day with a simple parting word from the Gospels, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [or, as Bruce Barton might say, manager]; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26-27; Mark 10:43-44). Embracing greater responsibilities will present far more improvement to one’s lot than airing discontent over entry-level wages and our system.