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In Search of the Perfect System

In Search of the Perfect System

The founder of America's #1 telecom company shares his personal life odyssey.

by

An excerpt from "I'm Not the Boss, I Just Work Here" by Howard Jonas.

Until second grade I lived in a near perfect world. Everyone in our middle-class neighborhood was prospering and moving up. America was at peace. President Kennedy was always frolicking on one beach or another with his wife and young kids. Mickey Mantle and the Yankees had just won another World Series. Then, one November day, it all started to come apart.

Miss Salvatico, my second grade teacher, told the class that we must all be strong and pray for the country and remain quiet while Dr. Hayes, our principal, made a special announcement over the P.A. system to the school. Dr. Hayes got on and said, "Students of P.S. 32, I have a very sad announcement to make. We have just been informed by the Board of Education that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Please remain with your teachers and let us all say the Pledge of Allegiance and hope for the best." Miss Salvatico led us in the Pledge, then asked us to open our workbooks and work silently on that night's homework assignment. I looked up and saw her begin to cry before running into the hallway to embrace an older, matronly teacher who was also collapsing in tears. My innocence (and the whole country's, as well) was over.

Returning from school, I saw people huddled together, some gathering around policemen and others sitting in their cars with their radios on. The word not spoken in school was whispered over and over again on the streets. Dead. The President is dead. Kennedy is dead. But I wouldn't listen. I wouldn't allow myself to hear. "If I don't listen," I told myself, "if I don't hear, he'll get better." I believed that the same way I believed that I'd be protected from appendicitis if I didn't know which side my appendix was on.

When I arrived home and found my mother collapsed, weeping on the floor in front of the black and white TV, I knew it was over. "They killed him," she wailed again and again. "They killed him. Why is it always the good ones who get it? They killed him. They killed our President."

I needed an answer. I wanted an answer. But I had no answer. There was no escape. For days there was nothing but the funeral. The President's horse. John John saluting. The unbelievable televised assassination of the murdered Oswald. And then Arlington. Twenty-one guns. Later, the cartoons returned and we all tried to get back to normal, to pretend it was just the weather. A freak lightning strike in an otherwise peaceful day.

But the storm did not abate. The next year, the Yankees lost to the Cards in the seventh game of the World Series. Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and the country erupted into race riots. Then Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down. Then the Yankees fell to ninth place. Then Vietnam. Mantle's ailing knees finally gave out for good and he retired from the game. Soon, not just the ghetto but the campus, the parks, the whole country seemed to be coming apart. Tear gas, unemployment, drugs everywhere. White flight, black rage. Body bags. Love it or leave it. Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh.

Chuck Wallace, a black friend in seventh grade, told me he'd see I was treated well after the Black Panthers seized control of the country. I told him our society wasn't going over just yet. But, honestly, who knew?

SUPERMEN NEED NOT APPLY

The search for answers was on. People started looking for the answers everywhere. San Francisco, India, Tibet. Pot, acid, LSD.

Me, I wasn't much for travel or drugs. I was by then in my teens, thoughtful and grasping for answers. So I started to read.

I wasn't much for travel or drugs. So I started to read.

Most of my teachers (many of whom had gone into education to avoid the draft) were left wing politically. Under their guidance I began reading the tracts of the left: Das Kapital, The Manifesto, The Little Red Book. Guess what? It was all nonsense. Kill all the rich guys. Then set up a dictatorship of the proletariat. Now all the little guys slave for you, while you live in the rich guy's house and tell the starving peasants about social justice.

Then I read the stuff from the right: Nietzsche, Smith, Rand. This was a little better, but flawed as well. Sure, it was great if you were a superman like Howard Roark or John Galt. I mean, who could be against building skyscrapers and partying all night? But what if you were crippled, retarded or sick? What kind of value system could it be if it had no place for those who really needed help? No wonder everyone was going to India. A lot of people thought they would find a better alternative in Eastern thought.

Not that I wasn't coming onto some authentic truths, one that resonated with my innate values. The deepest one was probably the Jeffersonian idea of Natural Rights -- that we are all born with a certain inalienable natural freedom. That it was wrong to take this freedom from us, and that the only excuse for limiting this freedom is protecting others' rights. Thus, you should be free to do whatever you'd like with your own life, provided your actions don't end up hurting, killing or stealing from others. What a great idea! We're not just objects or vassals. Each human being is something holy -- almost God-like, with his or her own natural rights.

The notion first put forth by the 18th century economist Adam Smith, that if people are allowed to act economically in their own self-interest, the most goods would be produced and the largest number of people's needs satisfied, was also a tremendous idea. It fit wonderfully with the concept of natural rights. If people were not only politically free, but economically free as well, everyone would be better off. Now here was a set of ideas I could really identify with.

Could such an ideal work in practice? Was it possible to set up a society where eventually someone wouldn't seize control of the central power and take away everyone else's freedom? John Locke, the 17th century British philosopher, proposed the idea of the balance of powers, which seemed to answer this problem. What if from the outset a government were set up separating the power to levy taxes from the power to spend? What if an independent judiciary existed which could judge disputes between the legislative and the executive powers? What if all this could be done within a framework that guaranteed the political and economic rights of everyone in that society, using an unshackled press to monitor any abuse of these rights? Well, that libertarian ideal would be an almost perfect society. Almost – except for the orphans, the disabled, the helpless and those without any hope or prospects. What about them?

If a social system built on principle inexorably results in abuse and misery, is humanity just destined for misery?

The problem with libertarian dogma was the problem with all dogma, whether of the left or the right. If you try to build your whole value system around a single principle, be it equality, ethnic unity or even freedom, that system eventually demands that reason and decency be sacrificed in the name of the higher principle. Examples of this abound. The liberty of the Roman republic gave rise to debauchery, corruption and trading in human beings, as the elite went about satisfying their own desires without consideration for the less fortunate. The fraternity of the French revolution quickly led even its most fervent stalwarts to the guillotine. And the equality promised by Communists like Stalin and Mao led tens of millions to death, imprisonment or, for the lucky, near starvation.

If a social system built on principle, just like systems based on arbitrary power, inexorably results in abuse and misery, is humanity just destined for misery? Was the Camelot ideal -- which seemed to die with John F. Kennedy -- really impossible after all? For my own part, I decided I'd just be a nice libertarian, one who worked hard but gave charity. No one, I thought, was ever going to come up with a perfect system.

BIBLE LESSONS

Then one day I picked up a Bible (when I say "Bible," I'm generally referring to the first major chunk of it, also known as the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch [in Greek], or the Torah [in Hebrew], and for simplicity's sake, I'll just call it the Bible) and started reading. I was amazed. There it all was – the libertarian ideal. Abraham refused to bury his wife Sarah until he was allowed to purchase a burial place that would belong to his family eternally -- an example of property rights.

There are more examples of property rights -- thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not even covet thy neighbor's property (with the hope of stealing it). Neither thou nor the king. Thy vineyard is thy vineyard and thy house is thy house. And nobody better abuse thy person either. Thou shalt not murder. Thou best not assault because thou shalt surely pay – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (but not literally). (Jewish law always understood these verses to refer to monetary compensation.) No kidnapping either. Death for that. So much for the crime problem.

And just because you're rich or in the government doesn't mean that you have the right to step on anyone else. The king isn't even allowed to have too many horses or too many wives. And the courts are expressly forbidden to give any special treatment to the rich. Don't try the sympathy angle, though; they're forbidden to give special consideration to the poor as well. Justice, justice shall you pursue. Now that's really neat, I thought.

Even the separation of powers was built in. You had the king, the High Priest, and the courts. There was sometimes a prophet, as well, to unmask wrongdoing and keep everyone on his toes. Later came the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court), which served as a rule-making body and the court of final appeal.

The king had some obligations I found especially interesting. First, he had to copy by hand an entire Bible using a quill on heavy parchment, a lengthy and difficult task. Then he had to carry this spiritual document of liberty with him wherever he went. And, periodically, he had to assemble the citizenry and read to them from the Bible so everyone would know just what their rights and obligations were.

What an incredible way to see the king internalize these values! Isn't the internal value system of the executive the only ultimate check against the most extreme abuses of the balance of power? Wouldn't it have been anathema even for a president like Nixon, raised on the doctrines of the Bill of Rights and the rest of the American Constitution, to have fomented a crisis and seize emergency military authority to hold onto power during Watergate? Isn't this the reason that an American president swears to protect, honor and defend the Constitution of the United States at his inauguration?

Yeah, the Bible was certainly the libertarian ideal. No wonder the Founding Fathers of the United States nearly decided to make Hebrew rather than English the national language of this nation of liberty.

But it was the Bible's exceptions to libertarian principle that struck me even more forcefully than the Bible's adoption of libertarian principle itself. Farmers were commanded to leave a corner of their field unharvested for the poor. Every Jew was ethically obligated to donate at least 10 percent of his income. Lenders were not permitted to charge interest on their loans. Even the largest debts were discharged every seven years.

There was one law that blew me away and made me into an observant Jew.

But there was one law that blew me away and made me into an observant Jew. At the age of 17, this one law literally made me change my life, simply because, once I discovered it, I had to concede that the Bible was the work of Divine genius.

Once every 50 years, in what is known as the Yovel (jubilee) year, all farmland (that is, the means of production in an agrarian society) must revert to its original owner's family. This meant that no matter how destitute or without hope a person might be, once every 50 years -- at least once in the average lifetime -- that person would have the means of production, the opportunity to rise to any level, placed back in his own hands. It took over 3,000 years for ideas like that to resurface in the form of the Homestead Act (which, in 1862, allowed anyone to claim land as theirs if they had worked it or lived there for at least five years), the GI Bill (which, beginning in 1944, provided education and training for millions of veterans) and, of course, public education (which provides free education to all children).

But this biblical law of the jubilee year guaranteed opportunity to every member of society. It wasn't just a redistribution of wealth, because gold, art, houses, even palatial residences in walled cities didn't revert. It was the opportunity that the land represented for independence, self-sufficiency and self-betterment that was redistributed. Prices of such land were always calculated taking this 50-year cycle into account.

In this jubilee year, the ram's horn would be sounded and liberty would be proclaimed to all the inhabitants of the land therein. Do you know where there these inspiring words are inscribed today? On the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Makes you think, huh?

I GOT THE POWER!

It sure made me think. When I discovered these biblical laws, I was simply astonished. What a perfect compromise between pure laissez faire economics and wealth redistribution strategies, which just lead to a welfare-state cycle of dependence.

But who was it who had thought of all this? Could it be Divine wisdom? Or maybe, to be more precise, a Divine decree?

The Bible, I discovered, is not a book of advice. It's a book of laws. The ancient Israelites were governed by and had to obey the dictums of the Bible (as is true for Jews today). So how did these laws originate? Who wrote them and put them into force? There were only two possibilities -- God or man.

The problem with the human explanation is that people only do things that are in their own self-interest. The laws that people write are always created to serve the particular interest of the person or party with the power to institute the laws.

Take me, for example. I'm the founder and chairman of a large telecommunications company called IDT. We're a public company and my stock is worth a substantial amount of money. But guess what? I don't own a majority of the stock. Long ago I had to sell my majority stake to thousands of individual investors and large mutual funds, who now own the majority of our equity. But guess what else? At every annual shareholder's meeting, I personally control the majority of the votes and decide all-important matters of policy. True, in the last several years our revenue, stock price and profits have consistently increased, so currently almost all the investors happily give me their proxies each year.

But even were I to totally mismanage things and drive us to the brink of bankruptcy, I'd still control the majority of the votes. Know why? Because I have super-voting stock. Every one of my shares gets three votes and everyone else gets only one. Is this fair? No. But that's how it is. Know why? Because the person who had the power, when the bylaws were written, set it up that way. That person let the prospective investors know in advance that if they wanted to buy shares in IDT, they'd have to do it accepting their condition, otherwise they could invest in some other company. Naturally, no one liked the condition, but they had no choice. The guy who wrote the bylaws had all the power. Now let me ask you a question. Who do you think that guy was?

Mea culpa. I admit it. I had the power and I intended to keep it. And I'm not sorry. Come what may, I don't have to worry. The market can go up or down. This book may sell or die on the shelves. I'm not worried. I know I'll have a job next year. I've got a lifetime contract. I wrote it myself. In this regard, I am like the railroad barons who controlled the state legislatures in order to secure rights of way through public lands, like the ancient conquerors who had themselves crowned kings, like the revolutionary Russian Communists who put their party in charge of everything they took over, or like the independent farmers and tradesmen who threw the British out and vested power in the hands of the people of America.

The rule is simple -- laws are put into force by those in power and are enacted for their own benefit. Who, then, came up with the idea that for 50 years the wealthy could pile up as much wealth and power as they desired, but at the end of 50 years they had to return any land they had acquired? Was it the wealthy? Obviously not. The poor, then? Why only the farmland? Who, then could possibly have come up with this stuff?

More questions come to mind. Who invented the idea of leaving the corner of one's field unharvested and giving away 10 percent of what is harvested? The rich? Now way, they'd want to keep it all. The poor? Why only 10 percent then?

What about the law that prohibits judges from showing favoritism to either the rich or the poor? Which side, I ask you, pressed for that? In fact, the more I looked into these questions, the more I was mystified.

The priestly clan was a possible suspect, since "taxes" supporting them were institutionalized. But if this group "wrote" the Bible, then why did they exclude themselves from the distribution of land or deny themselves the ability to marry whomever they wished?

If the king "wrote" the Bible, why would he forbid himself from having too many wives or horses? Why would he agree to submit to the law in so many cases? Where was the Divine Right of kings?

If neither the rich nor the poor were the beneficiaries, then who came up with all these laws, which were so just yet favored no one?

Which tribal society more than 3,000 years ago would have ever come up on their own with a law that affords full legal protection and rights to any foreigner who wandered onto their territory?

Foreigners at that (and in many parts of the world even now) were subject to enslavement, robbing, raping or killing. Who came up with the idea of respecting the rights of the sojourner and doing him or her no harm because you and your ancestors were sojourners in Egypt? Wouldn't exacting revenge on Egyptians and other foreigners have had a lot more popular appeal? (It sure seems so today!) The Hutu, the Tutsi, Blacks who've wandered into a Ku Klux Klan neighborhood. These groups can all attest to whole heaps of abuse. And yet, here it was. This was the Bible. The Law. God's law.

And then it hit me. The undeniable reality. The Bible really was God's revealed law. It was the source of all morality in the world. God planted the seed and gave us this Tree of Life, this source of morality. And then humanity spent most of its history ignoring it and doing what came naturally. But I decided then and there, while still a teenager, that I could no longer ignore it, and I became religiously observant.

Eventually I came to see that the seed of morality never really died. Carried by the Jews and partially transplanted into other world religions, it kept sprouting and asserting itself again and again, like the stalk that grows through concrete. It kept coming back, refusing to die, again and again confronting power with morality.

Click here to order a copy of "I'm Not the Boss, I Just Work Here."

Published: January 15, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Bob Burg, February 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Good thoughts. Some flawed premises

Earlier in the article, the author touched upon some of the highlights of "Libertarianism" but messed up on a key, key point. He wrote:

"Well, that libertarian ideal would be an almost perfect society. Almost - except for the orphans, the disabled, the helpless and those without any hope or prospects. What about them?"

No disrespect intended for this obviously very successful businessman, but this was a major mistake! In a true Libertarian society, the people he mentioned are helped much, much more than in a big government (meaning both Republicans and Democrats) society, which we have now.

How are they helped? By charity, by people who genuinely care but whose hands are not tied up from helping by the red tape of the government bureaucracy. They are helped by the loving-kindness of "individuals" and charitable associations at a local, hands-on level.

Would a Libertarian society be a "perfect" society? No, because there is no utopia before Moshiach. But it would be a lot closer to perfect than it is now, with a big, centralized government involved in basically every aspect of our lives.

I love my country (the U.S.) dearly and thank G-d every day for the privilege of living here. But our Founders set up a Libertarian set of principles (albeit with two monstrous flaws - the continuing of slavery and without women having equal rights as men) in our Constitution and Bill of Rights for us to live for a reason...it works better than the alternative.

I truly don't know if the author knows this and simply ignored it in order that the premise of his article could seguay into where he wanted it to go, or just doesn't understand it.

But, his having read the books he mentioned earlier in the chapter, he should know this.

Best wishes,

Bob
bob@burg.com
www.burg.com



(7) Yosef Sebag, February 2, 2005 12:00 AM

kol hakavod

great article. just curious why you didn't mention the shmita cycle and the bumper crop prediction.

(6) raye, January 19, 2005 12:00 AM

wow! an education in brief

I can't wait to refer this article to a libertarian friend of mine.

(5) robert halper, January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

too many issues at once

sounds good, but requires lots of discussion

(4) Michael Abramowitz, January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Gut gesagt/Well said

Well said

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