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The Art of Building Things

Creativity is an individual act. The act of building something, whether with hammers, blueprints, words, boards or plans is individualistic. Collectives can build, but not creatively. A mass has no vision because it has no personality. It can follow rules but not dreams.

American exceptionalism emerged out of a society which empowered the creative talents of the individual, not through grants, regulations, instructional pamphlets, inspectors and guidelines, but through the simple virtue of leaving men alone to do their work.

Freedom is the greatest creative force because it liberates the individual to build and as freedom diminishes within a society so does its creativity. Progress in restricted areas dwindles to a trickle as collectives expend a thousand times the money and effort, and still fail to equal the achievements of individuals operating on shoestring budgets.

The Soviet Union fell because its Communist collectives were not able to equal the West in the military or the economic arena. The only technique that Communist states ever had was to create a heavily regulated top-down infrastructure and when a crisis occurred, a mass of people would be thrown at the problem.

The collective approach allowed the Soviet Union to construct massive infrastructure projects; building roads, power stations and housing. But these were flawed imitations of Western projects and were poorly designed and implemented. The same pattern repeated itself across the Communist sphere. The collective could inefficiently mobilize armies of workers to carry out a project, but the planning and design of the project was grandiose, derivative and poorly adapted to the task at hand. Communist projects were mechanically conceived, mechanically implemented and unfit in the way that any project purely designed by machines would be for human use.

The Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Vietnam all won their engagements with enemies in the same way; by throwing so many men at the problem that the enemy would become bogged down and eventually forced to retreat. Their military victories did not emerge from strategy or heroism, but the mechanical willingness to sacrifice numberless individuals for the goals of the collective.

The few bits of genuine scientific progress came from scientists like Pavlov and Sakharov who were open critics of Communism and the Soviet Union. They did not come out of the collective that collectively crippled Russian science and ensured the collapse of its efforts at military parity with the United States. Ultimately the collective destroyed its own rule.

The seduction of the collective as builder however is not limited to countries that flew the red flag.  When Obama and Warren proclaimed that there were no monads, that no man was an island, but that we were all part of one great economic collective to which we owed an eternal debt, they were following up on some very old ideas.

Obama's interpretation of individual creativity occurring only within the context of state institutions is a natural outgrowth of a political philosophy that views those institutions as the essence of the country and the true foundation of its national greatness. This "Institutionalism" is the dominant liberal mindset which sees individualism as a chaos that must be ordered by the state.

Institutionalism says that individuals are not creative, only institutions are creative. Individuals who create are harnessing the creative energy of institutions. In the liberal institutionalist view, the state must create the conditions that make creative acts possible and those who fail to acknowledge their debt to the state are "free riders" who exploit the system without paying back to it.

21st century America is institutionalist, though it derives the greater part of its economic energy from individual creativity. The official philosophy emphasizes the virtues of committeedom; of agencies, corporations, governments and mass determinants which slowly move forward, consuming any form of progress and transforming it into mulch. The official debate is not over the virtues of this rank institutionalism, but over which forms of institutions are best and who should be running them.

To the east and the south, the core of the Muslim world has finally gotten around to adopting the democracy that their Western friends had insisted would be their salvation. And the essence of their experiment with democracy was to reaffirm a collective identity based on Islam. What the masses of individuals in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Iraq, not to mention the Palestinian Authority, wanted was an Islamic state that would eliminate any individuality.

In the face of chaos, Muslims chose not liberal institutionalism but Islamic institutionalism.  What this means in practice, beyond women with covered faces and more bombs going off on buses, is that the state and its economic monopolies will be in the hands of the devout who will nobly take care of the needs of the people. The practical difference between Islamism and Socialism is that the former is more backward, more tyrannical and more violently disposed toward us. But these are distinctions in degree, not in essence. Both Islamists and Socialists institute tyrannies based on theorists from the last few centuries that recreate a more ancient feudalism in the name of an absolute call for justice.

Americans with Obama, like the Egyptians with Morsi, chose a collective leader who would inspire and take care of them. A leader who would make them feel united into one single group. The promise of transcendence lingered over Tahrir Square and the United States Capitol, a promise that individual differences and divisions would melt away leaving only a perfect collective that would be capable of doing anything it set its mind to.

Even if Obama had been genuinely well-intentioned, the project of collective creativity was doomed from the start. Institutions excel most at their own construction. In their early stages they can fund creative works, but with the passage of time they become incapable of meaningfully interacting with the outside world.

The longer an institution exists the more likely it is to develop its own groupthink, its collective mentality and culture that allows for internal consistency, but makes creative work impossible. Like the Soviet Union, these collectives can draw up grandiose plans that are inefficient, have no purpose and are implemented without regard to actual conditions on the ground.

These collectives can envision masses of wind farms, without taking into account what will happen when winter comes or whether there is enough wind to make the project worthwhile. They can pay foreign architects and foreign workers to create symbols of Islamic grandiosity, such as the Dubai Burj and Saudi Arabia's Royal Mecca Clock Tower, and symbols of Socialist grandiosity such as North Korea's Ryugyong Hotel or the USSR's Palace of the Soviets; but these are not signs of creativity, only pyramids representing the entombing of creativity within a display of mindless power.

Creativity brings new things into the world, but new things are the bane of institutions which already have too many things to deal with and see such creativity as elementally disruptive. Institutionalism strives to repress creativity by forcing everyone into a collective plan, a mandate to follow the central program of the collective. And the only thing that the institutions of the collective are interested in creating are monuments to themselves.

An individual building things according to his own plan is disruptive. Even when following tested techniques and using standard tools to complete the same task that he has already done ten thousand times before, the individual can still find easier and better ways to do something. The individual can also find that a thing might be better done in an entirely different way or that there is no reason to do it at all.

This expression of creative energy is what tyrants like Obama or Morsi fear because it upsets their goal of using institutional power to maintain a completely ordered society. Institutionalist societies believe that bigger is better, that the individual is wrong and the rule book is right, and that a difference is a danger. They may talk up their commitment to progress, but what they truly do is accept a lack of progress in exchange for order and control. They would rather own everyone and everything than have a society that actually moves forward and creates things worth owning.

It is not the state that builds things, it is individuals who build the state. Once the state is built it begins by protecting individual creativity and ends by consuming it. Institutionalism does not unleash creativity, it suppresses it in the name of its own consensus.

Institutionalists like Obama do not believe in the individual, they believe that the individual is the root of all evil. They see him as an exploiter, a free rider, a breaker of commitments, a smasher of idols and a disruptor of their plans. They wrongly believe that the individual owes them something for the privilege of living under their rule and they are wrong in this. It is they who are indebted for their parasitism, for their free ride on his back, for the muzzle they have put in his mouth and the spurs they have planted in his side.

The art of building things is a simple art. It is the art of learning about the world as it is, of learning what one's own hands and mind are capable of. And above all else it is the art of being free.


  1. What a beautifully written paean to the worth of the individual! What a condemnation of collectivism! Reading it, I was reminded of Ayn Rand's novelette, "Anthem," which is set in an indeterminate future when the world has been collectivized and men live and die in groups, no individual is allowed to outshine or rise above another in intelligence or ability, and the candle is the peak of the State's technological achievement. When a street sweeper rediscovers (or recreates) the light bulb, he offers it to the State, but the State, horrified, rejects it, saying it would upset planned candle production. The State proposes to punish him for his action, but he escapes to freedom. Daniel Greenfield is an individual who has escaped from the mind-dulling, politically correct state of most intellectuals, and can be counted on to offer us the luminosity of his free mind.

  2. Naresh Krishnamoorti11/6/13

    Daniel, have you read John Ruskin's famous essay, "On the Nature of Gothic"? It's a chapter within his larger multi-volume work called The Stones of Venice.

    Ruskin brilliantly argues the same point you do, but, because he lived in the 19th c., compares the great Egyptian monuments built by slave labor with the great Gothic cathedrals, especially Chartres, built from the creativity of individual, free, craftsmen.

  3. ......we are all individuals......
    (Monty Python, the life of Brian)

  4. Anonymous11/6/13

    China's empty cities come to mind.

    Sibyl S.

  5. When is the last time the socialist countries of Western Europe have created any art, music or great scientific achievement?

  6. When is the last time the socialist countries of Western Europe have created any art, music or great scientific achievement?

  7. That was so enjoyable. Since I spend my days documenting the use of education policy to tear down the concept of the individual as traditionally understood in the West, it was timely too. Yes, all of Obama's education policies and much of education policy over the past 20 years has been about tearing away anything that makes the individual unique and pushing the collective. Communitarianism is even enshrined in the real definition of Career Ready being pushed.

    And Creativity is listed a 4C 21st Century skill along with collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. But it's not the Creativity that builds Chartres or imagines a steam engine. It's innovation and creativity about collectively solving social problems and imposing consensus beliefs.

    http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/comparing-the-real-common-core-to-notorious-authoritarian-social-engineering-disasters/ shows how this education policy is just more of the institutional social engineering that has already caused so much 20th century grief.

  8. Anonymous11/6/13

    Thank you Daniel. This article is a must read. It clearly illustrates the difference between individual freedom and tyrannical collectivism.
    Your thoughts help bring clarity to our modern day struggle for liberty while linking us to previous generations.

  9. Every single country outside of the US has a center of gravity closer to the collectivist agenda than the traditional population of the US. The goal of Amnesty and encouraging immigration from the third world is to shift the center of gravity in the US towards collectivism. The traditional "disadvantaged minorities" in the US are on the average more pro-collectivist as well. The coming alliance of immigrants and "oppressed minorities" is the biggest threat to the US ever. Because traditional white men are less collectivist than the "oppressed minorities", feminists, the kind of gays that are enthralled with the gay agenda, Muslims, etc. it has become convenient for the left to demonize "old white men", all for the sake of making collectivism the only acceptable way to live. This has to be stopped.

  10. Obama isn't so much an institutionalist as a statist. There is only one institution Obama truly supports: the state.

    Churches, businesses, families, villages, hospitals, universities, etc. are all institutions, but are (more or less) voluntary, local, and organic. Their independence is under attack by the regulatory, internationalist, and technocratic state.

  11. Rod Freeman11/6/13

    Fantastic article. I do have hope that we are approaching an age where nationalistic borders cannot impose the same limiting factor on creativity.

    As long as the internet can remain free from some sort of global government regulation there should be increasing opportunity for creative individuals anywhere on the globe to distribute their ideas and creations.

    The rapidly evolving technology of 3D printing could be a game changer in combating the stultifying effects of collectivism ... even as states everywhere will begin to regulate and legislate it.

    With things like the Tricorder just around the corner it will be interesting to watch the collective horrified regulatory response to "doctors being put out of business." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tricorder_X_PRIZE

  12. roger in florida11/6/13

    another wonderful article, thank you Mr. Greenfield.
    Our western progress has many sources but I would like to mention two:
    First is the concept of private property, the formalized right to acquire, use and dispose of property without undue restriction.
    Second is the quality of humility, we prosper and grow because we acknowledge our limitations and strive to overcome them. Many of our greatest scientists, inventors and thinkers were basically humble men and women.
    In a political and social system such as Islam, there is no humility, the word of God is above all and rejects all argument. How can such a system be anything other than the catastrophic failure that it is?

  13. Great topic. It was predictable that Ayn Rand would be brought into the conversation. In addition to 'Anthem' rereading Ellsworth Touhy's speech to Peter Keating may be worthwhile as well.

    One of the levers the Left uses is Altruism. Creators are made to feel that somehow their success is enabled by 'society', creating a dependency there that eventually stultifies their creativity. I'm curious if anyone else has thoughts on the below?

    I hear, over and over, the phrase 'giving back to my community', or town, or whatever. The giving back, it seems to me, is generally by the very people with significant success in life, like their success was only enabled by society. It pains me that a retired teacher with hundreds of past students, a businessman who's employed hundreds of people, a veteran who's risked his/her life overseas, etc. would feel the need to apologize for their success and give society the credit.

    These people 'gave' decades to the communities, and did enormous good in whatever field of endeavor they chose. We should be honoring that success, as individuals, not insisting they still owe society something. Its backwards, in my opinion.

  14. Anonymous12/6/13

    Brilliant. Thank you.



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