A few nights ago I enjoyed some wonderful vocal music, with soloists and ensembles, some with instrumental accompaniment and others a cappella. A symphony can also make beautiful music without a word being sung or spoken, with every instrument working in perfect accord, with precise harmony and timing, eliciting a strong visceral response. A symphony orchestra or large ensemble takes a tremendous amount of coordination, cooperation and the direction of a talented conductor. It becomes a work of art when all of the parts are put together and guided by the hand of the master. Soloists, on the other hand, take control of their own music and interpret it as they choose. A masterful soloist can bring tears of emotion and bursts of joy.
Which is better, the symphony or the soloist? The obvious answer is that neither is better. They serve different purposes, play to different audiences, and cater to different tastes. The big difference is that the soloist is directed by his or her own goals, interpretation, and artistry. In order to make the symphony function well, or for that matter, any group, musical or otherwise, every person in the group must subordinate goals, interpretation, and artistry to that of the leader.
Business organizations, clubs, churches, and other social organizations, if they are to be successful, must, to some extent, use the symphony pattern. Participants in those organizations must give up a little of themselves. They must voluntarily and necessarily subordinate their own wishes to the needs of the group. That doesn't mean that they subordinate their entire lives or all of their goals, but rather only those in limited areas related to their participation in the organization. They go home, leave those goals aside, and assume their roles as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, caregivers, nursemaids, do-it-yourselfers, gardeners and the thousands of other things which may be of interest to the individuals. Everyone lives as good a life as he or she can, making decisions based on assumptions about expected future circumstances, present resources, and tradeoffs he or she is willing to make.
The symphony is sometimes presented as an analogy for a nation or economy comprised of millions of people. The model assumes the necessity of having a brilliant and masterful director setting the goals, coordinating all of the activities, and ensuring harmony between the disparate parts and instruments. This analogy completely falls apart once you realize that the millions of people in the raucous crowd of society do not and cannot all have the same goals as a central director in every area of their lives. Some of their goals may be in direct conflict with those of the director and of others in society. Cooperation involves tradeoffs that only the individuals can effectively make regarding needs, wants, and ambitions.
If order is to be imposed to establish the kind of harmony a director might desire, he will necessarily have to compel everyone in society who doesn't harbor the same goals, desires, and ambitions to forfeit their own and subject them to those of the planner for every area of their lives. In a voluntary society, there will be many who don't comply because, after all, that is what voluntary means. In a coercive society, lack of compliance necessarily means the use of force against those who dare to have their own goals and desires, rather than fall into place and play the part which is forced upon them. People can't just take their instruments and go home. They can't take leave of the central planner's attempt at social harmony.
A free society, a voluntary society, is made up of soloists, people who make their own music. Most times they voluntarily cooperate and subordinate a portion of their own lives to relationships they hold in esteem. Most times they try to harmonize with those around them. Sometimes, however, their music is not a beautiful melody, but is, rather, an off-key, out of step, awkward noise, unpleasant to be around. If they eventually want to share the benefits that come with getting along with others, they will learn to cooperate and to enjoy the harmony that springs from teamwork. If not, they can sing their own tunes and enjoy their solitude.
These words of Henry David Thoreau speak of those people: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.