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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The end of accomplishment?

With bureaucracy's triumph over excellence, important projects have stalled

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

Oh, the things our society could accomplish if we put our minds to it! "If we can go to the moon, then we can surely. . . ." Fill in the blank with your own impossible dream: eradicate poverty, eliminate crime, lower the earth's temperature. More recently we were assured that scouring the Gulf of millions of gallons of oil can't be too difficult for a nation that sent a man to the moon.

We may pass over too lightly what it took to achieve that goal. My friend Steve once handled real estate for a gentleman who kept a photograph of himself with JFK in his office. When asked about the photo, the man shared his history of working on the Apollo program. His most vivid memory: In the early days of NASA, his engineering team was surprised by a visit from the president, who strode into the office with no security detail, sleeves rolled up, radiating energy. "Gentlemen," Kennedy announced, "I'm here to set the agenda. In eight years we will send a man to the moon." The immediate protests-that the goal was impossible within the time frame, that too much groundwork remained-he merely waved away. "It can be done," the president said. "And it will."

Years later, Steve tells me, the engineer still got goose bumps recalling that moment.

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The Apollo program required, first, a vision: a science-fiction dream that could conceivably come true. Next it took a leader with the presence and charisma to strike the spark. And finally it took subordinates who caught the vision and pooled their talents to embody mathematical equations in steel and fire.

The rest is history, but history may have turned downhill. Bruce Charlton, blogger and university professor, believes it did. "The landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability . . . and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability."

Three reasons why: a preference for diversity over excellence in hiring, the expansion of committees and regulatory agencies, and the erosion of individual responsibility. These were trends that had begun decades before, but by 1970 "the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy."

The world has seen no greater force than free agents who devote themselves to a common goal, for good or ill. The novelist Mario Llosa writes that 500 years ago, a tiny expeditionary army under Francisco Pizarro overwhelmed the mighty Inca Empire because the natives "were incapable of taking individual initiative, or acting with a certain degree of independence according to the changing circumstances"-unlike the Spaniards who slaughtered them. Centuries later, a band of renegade British subjects pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the establishment of a new nation, and the mother country could not extinguish their united will. Still later, that same nation was able to subdue two deadly enemies on opposite sides of the world, and then single-handedly rebuild them.

Today we can't seem to muster the organization to achieve a consensus to approve measures to clean up an oil spill. Vision, leadership, unity, and talent are ground to dust by bureaucracy.

Human creativity will never die, just divert. A society that can no longer go to the moon can still make thrilling movies about it-indeed, can accomplish just about anything in the digital universe. Meanwhile, big projects in the real world have stalled, perhaps for good.

That's a depressing thought. But one mighty force remains, of individual souls freed from bondage, pledged to a common cause, inspired by a common vision, under perfect leadership. It's called the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, much less the muddle of bureaucracy. Where human progress falters, there the church rises. We have God's word on that; it's time to believe it.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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