What to Do with Super-Achievers? Arnold Kling

The organizations that come into existence will reflect the opportunities provided by the institutional matrix. That is, if the institutional framework rewards piracy then piratical organizations will come into existence; and if the institutional framework rewards productive activities then organizations—firms—will come into existence to engage in productive activities.
—Douglass North, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 9, 1993.

Steven Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Computer, and Steven Chu, the current secretary of Energy, are both examples of super-achievers. Jobs created an innovative company that is currently among the most valuable in the world as measured by stock market capitalization. Chu earned a Nobel Prize in physics and sees himself as a leader in the battle against global warming.

At this point, it seems likely that Jobs will be remembered as having contributed significantly to human progress. Chu's historical legacy is more problematic. Assuming that Chu's efforts at promoting solar power and electric automobiles are no more successful than the Carter-era effort to build a breeder reactor, they will end in dismal failure. Is there a lesson to be learned from this about where society should want its super-achievers to perform?

It is certainly not the case that Jobs was more intelligent or noble than Chu. However, they operated within different institutional frameworks. In this essay, I argue that society is better off when people with the “animal spirits” to seek to become super-achievers do their striving within the private sector rather than if they hold the levers of power in government.

I would like to see a culture where super-achievers look to the (non-banking) private sector as the arena for attempting to realize their visions. Government should be an arena for quiet competence, not for those who aspire to great achievement.

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