Destructive Ambition

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Robert Samuelson has a thought-provoking column out today. His subject is the dark side of ambition and how it can lead to pointless, self-destructive behavior. Ambition is both the blessing and the curse of America.

A great strength of American society is the drive to succeed — well, not just to succeed but to do better than anyone else; to be a star, a tycoon, an authority, a power, a celebrity or a leader; to be admired, respected, feared or obeyed more than your peers. It is the belief in these possibilities that motivates countless Americans to strive for excellence, to work hard and to search for new discoveries and inventions. As for one of the great weaknesses of American society, see all of the above.

It is an enduring paradox of the American condition. There is a point at which ambition and the determination to succeed, which generally serve us well, turn destructive, corrupting and dishonest. Success becomes its own god. Winning is what matters; the methods or consequences count little or not at all.

The latest reminder of the paradox comes from three recent cases: Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots; runner Marion Jones; and trial lawyer William Lerach. Belichick had opponents' defensive signals videotaped, contrary to explicit National Football League rules; Jones admitted taking illegal drugs around the 2000 Olympics; and Lerach pleaded guilty to illegally hiring plaintiffs as fronts for filing suits against companies. Belichick got off fairly easy (a $500,000 fine), but the others did not. Jones has returned five medals (three gold, two bronze) won at the Sydney Olympics, and Lerach faces $8 million of penalties and at least a year in jail.

What connects these cases is that the transgressions were largely, or perhaps entirely, pointless. Does anyone really believe that Belichick's Patriots didn't win three Super Bowls (2002, 2004, 2005) on inherent ability? Jones almost certainly would have earned some medals without doping. Lerach was among the kingpins of trial attorneys. Although he might have missed some suits by not having dummy plaintiffs, his firm surely could have remained in the top tier while abiding by the rules.

Read the rest, Samuelson makes a number of excellent observations. Part of the problem is the distorted view that the media gives us of the world and the importance of celebrity. Just look at how much time, money and effort is spent on reporting about a ditzy singer-turned-parent, Britney Spears. Look how much time people invest in living life vicariously through unreal reality television shows like American Idol.

There are many examples of blind ambition turned ugly these days. I would submit that James Dobson's threats to back a third party fit into that category. His own self-importance would lead him into ruining himself. I would also submit that Hillary Clinton's latest round of pandering could also backfire. Ed Morrisey today points to the latest Hillary pandering move, vastly expanding entitlements at the same time the Social Security time bomb is starting its slow-motion explosion with the first boomers retiring. Morrisey points to Clinton's proposal to expand the Family Medical Leave Act and provide even more funding for day care.

"With an eye toward flexibility and supporting the needs of small businesses"? Ask businesses now, small and large, how "flexible" the FMLA makes them now. Small businesses do not have "needs" for more government mandates on leave or sick days. Both are better left to the labor market. The expansion of FMLA to smaller businesses will make them less competitive against larger firms who can absorb that federal mandate easier and will force them to spend more on labor, driving up their prices and making them uncompetitive.

The "needs" Hillary wants to address are her own.

Yes they are. As Samuelson points out, there can be a dark side to ambition.

UPDATE: The New York Times reports the annual cost of Clinton's "family friendly" proposals to be $1.75 billion. To be funded by magic, apparently.

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One Response to Destructive Ambition

  1. mockinbrd says:

    Sen. Clinton’s pandering is so destuctive. Surely she feels ashamed of her self serving, short term goals.

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