Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fame vs. Achievement

When I teach entrepreneurship in my economic principles class I always start by surveying my students and asking them if they have heard of a particular set of people. I usually start with someone on the current list of bestselling CDs on Yahoo or some such place. (I have to look it up because I have usually heard of few if any of them.) For constancy’s sake, I then ask if they have heard of Madonna, with whom I and they are familiar. I then move to the current vice president of the U.S. – this administration aside, typically not someone at the top of the news every day, but whom we would expect all citizens to know. Typically everyone has heard of all of them.

I then ask them if they have heard of Ted Hoff, Fred Smith or Alexander Fleming, and am usually greeted by silence. They were, respectively, vital in the creation of the microprocessor, FedEx and penicillin. Despite that, they are unknown to almost everyone in a world that benefits from their achievements. And in the age of an omnipresent entertainment industry this, alas, is how it is. There is little correlation between fame and achievement.

In one sense this is too bad, because Hoff, Smith and Fleming in their own way did far more to advance the human condition than any singer or movie actor ever will. There is a certain irritation in seeing society held rapt by the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, knowing that a similar event devoted to great achievements in science and commerce would draw almost no interest. Indeed, to the extent we know businessmen and scientists at all it is often because they have successfully crossed the bridge to celebrity – think of a Lee Iacocca or Donald Trump on the one hand or a Steven Hawking on the other. And as the Trump example illustrates, even here there is no obvious correlation between true achievement and fame.

There are several lessons I hope my students take away from this. The first is the difference between the two things. What is achievement? I define it broadly, as anything that advances the human condition or puts us in a position to improve our lives. And so the greatest achievements in history (as opposed to, say, the most pivotal historical events), usually occur thanks not to diplomats, generals or clerics, but to scientists and entrepreneurs, who ultimately are engaged in the same task – the generation of new knowledge, for the benefit of all future generations, through trial and error. In the case of the scientist this description is obvious. For the entrepreneur perhaps not, but they too are constant experimenters trying out new ideas – here, ideas about how scarce resources should be recombined – in an attempt to learn new economic knowledge – whether their proposed new use of the resources is more socially valuable than the disparate uses to which the resources were previously put. While the well-educated person is generally aware of the greatest scientific achievers, commercial achievers do not always get the credit that they perhaps deserve. In his recent book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray (about whom more in a later post) specifically omitted commerce as one of his categories of humanity’s greatest achievements, although because of measurement difficulties rather than ideological ones.

More generally, I think it is a fact that the entrepreneur is not seen as a heroic figure. But thanks to Fred Smith’s demonstration of the feasibility of getting something from here to there overnight, no matter where “there” is, humanity is in considerably better shape. The ability to move perishable substances is much enhanced, business costs are much lower, and so on. And note that by “feasible” I do not mean in an engineering sense: we have had planes capable of traveling great distances in less than a day for some time. The difficulties instead involved figuring out how to link up sender and recipient, how to best organize the flow of parcels, etc. These are informational difficulties, which involve the attempt and abandonment of many different methods before a feasible, i.e. profitable, one is found. And this kind of use of privately held but socially valuable information is what entrepreneurs are always doing. Fleming (and Ernst Chain, and Howard Florey, and the other key participants in the creation of penicillin) behaved heroically in creating the scientific knowledge that enabled its use, but so too did (and do) all those in commerce whose energies made it available to the entire world at such trivial cost. Unlike the creator of a great art work or the winner of a major battle, the fruits of these achievements are spread out in tiny increments among millions of people across many years instead of being consumed all at once.

The contrast between the long-term contributions of people such as this and those who sing or play sports (or do even less) for a living and for public adoration is striking, and perhaps recent. In previous centuries, there were no “celebrities,” people whose lives were scrutinized primarily for their ability to entertain. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “fame” has its etymology in the Greek word for “to speak,” and the most recent definition is “The condition of being much talked about. Chiefly in good sense: Reputation derived from great achievements; celebrity, honour, renown.” Newton and Mozart, for example, were “famous.” But nowadays “celebrity” is the outlier word here; no one supposes that Paris Hilton, say, has any honor, great achievements or renown, but she is undeniably famous. It was probably not always thus, in that great renown in centuries past often came from honors by royalty, election to elite organizations such as the Royal Society and the like. But now the divorce between fame and permanent improvement of humanity is complete.

I don’t begrudge the famous any of their money; they are providing services of value, and deserve every penny they get. But I do not confuse their fame with accomplishment, and take some comfort in the knowledge that achievement is permanent, but fame only evanescent. A hundred years from now the only people who will know who Madonna was will be cultural anthropologists who specialize in late 20th-century U.S. pop culture. But the achievement of Ted Hoff and Fred Smith will probably be secure for eternity in the history books of the future, and even if not their legacy of achievement will be obvious every day in the improved lives future generations lead.


Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

take some comfort in the knowledge that achievement is permanent, but fame only evanescent.

EVANescent.... that's so you.


9:00 AM  
Blogger choward said...

You are correct. Sad, but few care about achievement. We should put great scientist and inventors on our money! Promote these great people in school!

12:05 AM  

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