First published in the Sunday Times on 17th April 2016.
Spectatorism is a modern disease from which many suffer. Symptoms include a stubborn refusal to act, combined with a strong preference for observation and criticism rather than participation. As the poet Domingo Ortega wrote: “Bullfight critics ranked in rows/Crowd the enormous Plaza full;/But he’s the only one who knows/And he’s the man who fights the bull.”
Among spectatorism’s victims are those academics and writers who like to theorise rather than take part. All too many of them demonise free markets and business. Capitalism is a far from perfect economic system, but the alternatives are much worse. Unfortunately, most left-wing “experts” fail to understand this fundamental truth. They fantasise that ever more government spending, higher tax, more regulation and central planning are the answer to society’s ills, and that the state almost always knows best.
Repeatedly, events in the real world prove their ideologies wrong, but still they attack the free market economy. The tragedy of Venezuela over the past 15 years is just the latest example of why their progressive ideas are hogwash.
Since socialist Hugo Chavez’s party took control in Caracas in 1999, the country’s economy has collapsed, thanks to catastrophic mismanagement as part of a doomed “Bolivarian Revolution”.
Venezuela has become the world capital for murder, inflation and basic goods shortages. Its currency has declined by almost 95% in two years; the judiciary and media have been corrupted; electricity blackouts are routine; investment has evaporated; and quality of life has deteriorated alarmingly. All this in a country endowed with the world’s largest oil reserves.
None of this had to happen, but Venezuela followed demented Cuban policies, and its citizens have paid the price.
Hard-left politicians at the top of the Labour party, such as Jeremy Corbyn, are unreconstructed fans of Venezuela. Last year he said, “we celebrate . . . the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education”.
Chavez nationalised the oil industry and it fell apart. Corbyn and his Labour chums think we should nationalise our steel industry, the railways, and possibly the energy industry. Their theories on state intervention in business are destructive and unworkable, but then they are onlookers, not participants: virtually none of the Labour high command has private-sector experience, or indeed, of managing anything successfully.
As Irish author Brendan Behan said: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
Various companies I know have slick talkers, clever strategists, and brilliant presenters in charge. But for all the smooth patter, execution is what counts. As Harold Geneen, the conglomerateur who built up ITT, said: “It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.”
Running a commercial concern for profit is a practical art, but too many chief executives get distracted by the ramblings of intellectuals, politicians and activists — most of whom have never run even a whelk stall. Perhaps the finest remarks on the subject were delivered by Teddy Roosevelt in his 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech, in Paris. He said: “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work, which the critic never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness, which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not . . . of superiority but of weakness.”
It is no surprise that, according to Edmund Morris’s biography, Colonel Roosevelt, he was the first American President to “fly an airplane, to own a car, to have a telephone and travel outside the borders of the US while still in office”.
I came across the concept of spectatoritis when reading about Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound. He believed one of the problems of “Modern Youth” was a “decline of initiative and enterprise due to the disease of spectatoritis”.
I believe the key in life is to grasp opportunities, and to avoid endless debate and excessive contemplation. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: “Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what dimly lies at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”
We admire principals, not bystanders. Yet in public discourse it is the commentators who dominate, rather than those who roll up their sleeves and do the job. Given the number of vocal enemies of capitalism, it is a shame more captains of industry don’t speak out more often in favour of business, markets and the profit motive.
Each generation must be reminded that the fruits of human ingenuity are best delivered not via state direction, but through a combination of individual efforts, entrepreneurship and private capital.