Vikings and Entrepreneurs!

The History Channel mini-series Vikings begins with a conflict that all societies deal with: the conflict between the entrepreneurial spirit who thinks outside the box and the establishment that seeks to keep the entrepreneurs in their place. The establishment is satisfied with the way things are and have no desire or incentive to change, and Vikings highlights all of this in the first two episodes. In the mini-series, the farmer Ragnar dreams of going west and even has a special boat designed and secretly made to withstand the open seas, but he is opposed by Earl Hararldson who wants to raid various impoverished kingdoms east. The Earl tells one of his lieutenants, “There are no lands west.” He also made it clear to Ragnar in one gathering that raiding Parties are to head east, but Ragnar ignores the Earl and makes the voyage west. For Ragnar it is life or death, for if he is wrong, he could easily die on the voyage, and if he brings back no pillage, Earl is just as likely to execute him.

The lesson here is that society in general always has conflicts between the entrepreneurial spirit who challenges the status quo and the establishment who uses the power of government to keep their privileges. In our own history, much of our progress was created by those who thought outside the box and sometimes weren't applauded until their successes became obvious or profitable. Every major discovery over the past three centuries was met with skepticism including transportation by train or airplane, as many believed that humans were incapable of tolerating the speed of a train or that humans simply would not be able to lift themselves off the ground. How many IBM planners in the late 60’s could even imagine a personal computer in every home? Or that one could even put the power of computer in a phone plus make calls or put an entire library in a Nook or Kindle? Progress often came from nowhere, and no one predicated that an iPad or personal computer could have enough computing power superior to giant computers some forty years ago.

Years ago, author Virginia Postrel's book, The Future and its Enemies, detailed how many of our great discoveries and advances came from the unplanned nor does Ms. Postrel view this as a left/right confrontation since she found that even as many on the right would oppose elements of progress as those on the left. Wal-Mart, biotechnology, the Internet, suburban “sprawl”, genetically modified foods, and fracking are added to those items needed to be stopped. Some want a return to a pre-industrial past, while others foresee the need for a bureaucratically-controlled future. However, they all share what Postrel terms “statsis,” a centrally-controlled authority running society and what changes that occur must have approval from authority. In the series Vikings, the Earl reminds Ragnar that Ragnar sails in his boat and therefore must do what he says or else. Of course, the Earl would not allow Ragnar to create his own boat to make his journey westward. In this Viking community, all approval for any change must come from the Earl. Ragnar is the symbol of today’s entrepreneurs who are forced to operate by society's rules but find a way to generate progress in unforeseeable ways. These modern day entrepreneurs are not united by political ideology but something deeper that includes inquiry, taking advantage of market competition or simply an appreciation of unusual artistic design.

Postrel sums up her argument, “How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that 'we're scared of the future' and join Adams in decrying technology as 'a killing thing'? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.”

Look around and the biggest obstacles to progress are those who call themselves progressives. Develop new energy? No, the world will end because we’ll fry to death. Genetically Modified Food that will increase food output? No, it is Frankenstein food. Look who are the biggest proponents of “smart growth” and opposition to “Suburban sprawl?” Progressives, as they use various zoning laws to restrict growth while putting their own vision of a simpler past in place. There are those on the right who are as much opposed to progress as those on the left as Mr. Postrel noted that many on the right oppose the free movement of people (immigration policies) and free movement of good (free trade).  When viewing the series Vikings, it is Ragnar who represents the entrepreneurial spirit and the visionary and Earl Haraldson represents the modern day Nanny state, the progressives who view a bureaucratically-run state as the norm. For those who live in New York, remember it is the progressives who wantto keep you from drinking your big Gulp. And as long as the spirit of Ragnar the farmer remains, America will remain strong. The decline of a society is a choice.

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