The Most Interesting (Business) Man in the World ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Peter Drucker is best known to the world as the author of massive bestsellers in the category of business management. But Drucker thought a lot about such things as totalitarianism, decentralization, limited government, an American type of conservatism, social harmony, the impact of mass production on human beings.

A number of readers of this essay will be familiar with the beer company commercials built around “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” This man, a virile and hirsute senior citizen, has moved through his century with peerless confidence and style. When I think of my own candidate for the most interesting man, I find that Peter Drucker (1909–2005) comes to mind.

Drucker is best known to the world as the author of massive bestsellers in the category of business management. Before there was Jim Collins or Tom Peters, there was Peter Drucker. He was born a subject of the Austrian emperor and worked as an economist and a journalist before ultimately becoming a professor in the United States. While I think of him as “the most interesting man,” he was more humble about himself. His autobiography is titled Adventures of a Bystander. The book is mostly a collection of tales about people Drucker knew rather than a chronology of his own life. For instance, it tells of an odd man (one of Drucker’s fellow students) who would become the teacher of Henry Kissinger, Alfred Sloan (the man who made General Motors a giant success), Henry Luce (the founder of Time), and many other interesting figures.

Perhaps the story I remember best from the book is the one about an investment firm with which Drucker was associated. This old European firm actually had a courtesan; her services came as part of a specific position on the firm’s organizational chart. Drucker describes the crisis that occurred when a happily married young man was appointed to the job to which the courtesan was attached. I’ll leave it to readers to obtain the book and find out more. Less scandalous, but also interesting and amusing, is the tale he tells of a partner at the same firm who apparently did nothing all day but trade shares of the Chrysler Corporation. He was quite successful at it, yet he had no idea what kind of business Chrysler was. He thought it might be a railroad company.

Not Just a Business Thinker

Like many, I discovered Drucker through his extensive writings in the discipline of management. But as I read his books, I got little hints that he might be something more than a gifted writer of bestselling business books. Though some credit him with the founding of management as an academic field, and most associate him with such books as The Effective Executive (1967) and Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices (1973), I noticed that his earlier works, from the 1940s and 1950s, had more expansive titles such as The End of Economic Man and The New Society. I also learned that his academic training was not in management but in law; he had obtained his European doctorate in international law. I began to see Drucker as a social and political thinker, as well as an astute business mind. This is, after all, the man who viewed management primarily as a liberal art.

Since making that realization, I have studied his earlier books. Drucker thought a lot about such things as totalitarianism, decentralization, limited government, an American type of conservatism that he thought had special characteristics, social harmony, the impact of mass production on human beings, and other topics. One subject that preoccupied him in those earlier decades was the Christian faith. In an attempt to draw more attention to a somewhat forgotten aspect of the man and his work, I will, in what follows, identify and discuss some of Drucker’s key themes regarding the Christian faith in relation to society and government.

How Totalitarianism Was Able to Rise

Drucker’s first book, The End of Economic Man (1939), contains some of his most profound hopes and thoughts regarding Christianity. The book is about the phenomenon of totalitarianism and how it achieved so much traction with people in the forms of fascism and communism. It is not surprising that a man born into the constitutional monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian empire and who saw his country annexed to Hitler’s Germany while he was still young would find the problem of totalitarianism to be urgent. In the late 1930s, he was living close to the crisis both chronologically and geographically. Indeed, the Nazi regime ordered that a pamphlet he had written be banned and destroyed.

The End of Economic Man makes the case that totalitarianism was able to rise in Europe because it gave hope to the masses. That much is not original. But Drucker went further, arguing that totalitarianism succeeds by creating a parallel life system—typically based on the organizational structure of the official party—that both runs alongside and supersedes the economic system. Adherence to the party and its agenda is a new way to excel in life and to redirect one’s purpose to a purportedly higher cause. Therefore, the ability to be economically productive takes second place to the merits of party participation. The economic system must be made to serve the goals of something higher and better.

Both the Nazis and the Communists managed to accomplish the feat of elevating ideological party life over the economic system, which the masses felt devalued and threatened them with what Drucker called the “demons” of unemployment and depression. Many people accepted the substitution of party organization over economics because they did not feel that commerce should determine the shape of society. In this new system, they felt they might be able to live a better life.

The leader of the new social structure was like a magician or high priest who promised to exorcise the demons of unemployment and depression. Drucker noted that a number of German Protestant farmers hung a portrait of the Führer where a picture of Jesus Christ had previously been. He pointed to the elevation of Hitler to the status of a religious figure by way of diagnosis. In his own mind, the Church was a far better candidate to integrate the broader society beyond simple economics than were the totalitarian movements that ascended to power.

Drucker identified a number of Christians around that time who were searching for a way to provide a new basis for society, including Nicolai Berdiadiev (Berdyaev), G. K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, and Oswald von Nell-Breuning. Chesterton’s inclusion in this group makes one wonder whether Drucker thought of small-property distributism as a way to deal in a loving and productive way with the question of private property, regarding which he saw the pendulum swinging too far in one direction. What had once been a social concept balanced with both privileges and duties now seemed to have slid too much to one side—that of privileges—and the resulting dissatisfaction helped open the door to political evils such as totalitarianism.

According to Drucker, voices within the Church realized that “the subjection of all property to money-economy would pauperize the masses and enrich the few.” His sympathy with those concerned about potential wrong turns in the market shouldn’t be surprising. That is a perennial concern in the political-economic mix. In The Republic, Plato expressed alarm at the idea of cities allowing their inhabitants to freely dispose of property. The Mosaic law prohibited the fully free buying and selling of property, instead granting men only limited rights to alienate property for a term of years. Even John Locke, who provided a compelling justification for property rights, included the limitation that only so much could be taken as left similar property available for others to claim and to work.

Christianity as a Rescue Mechanism

Despite the fact that he wrote The End of Economic Man when totalitarianism was ascendant in both fascistic and communistic forms, Drucker had hope for the potential positive influence the Christian faith could exert. In his view, Christianity gains power when it has been uprooted and seeks to reintegrate in a new way. His insight here foreshadowed the argument British sociologist David Martin would make decades later. Christianity seems to grow weak when favored by authorities and waxes stronger when cut back to its remnant. From that point of renewal, the faith again becomes a system challenger and presents a true alternative.

After World War II, there were others who set their eyes on Christianity as a rescue mechanism in the wake of the war’s great devastation. The post-war trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg exhibited a sound rejection of values-free legal positivism and brought something like Christian natural law to bear in judging the shocking behavior of those who engaged in genocidal work.

With greater particularity, Frank Buchman, the Lutheran minister, appealed to Western leaders to commit their nations to “moral and spiritual re-armament” as a way to prevent the build-up and use of frightening technological armaments. The Oxford Group, of which he was a part, sought to bring about “a Christian revolution for remaking the world.”

The Roots of Freedom

In his next book, The Future of Industrial Man (1942), Drucker relied upon Christian anthropology as a promising building block for society. He credited Christianity with the idea that men are more alike in their moral character than in their race, nationality, or color. Though we are imperfect and sinful, we are simultaneously made in God’s image and are responsible for our choices. We cannot claim to have fully comprehended the good, but neither can we deny our responsibility to seek it. Freedom, according to Drucker, is based upon faith.

He went on to make a claim that would be surprising to the legions who follow his managerial thought even to this day.

Freedom, as we understand it, is inconceivable outside and before the Christian era. The history of freedom does not begin with Plato or Aristotle. Neither could have visualized any rights of the individual against society, although Aristotle came closer than any man in the pre-Christian era to the creed that man is inherently imperfect and impermanent. Nor does the history of freedom begin with those Athenian “totalitarian liberals,” the Sophists who denied all responsibility of the individual because they denied the existence of absolutes.

The roots of freedom are in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Epistles of St. Paul; the first flower of the tree of liberty was St. Augustine. But after two thousand years of development from these roots, we still have trouble in understanding that freedom is a question of decision and responsibility, not one of perfection and efficiency. In other words, we still confuse, only too often, the Platonic question: What is the best government? with the Christian question: What is a free society? (Italics mine)

Those who take what Drucker called the Christian question, “What is a free society?” as their starting point realize that government and society should be organized as different spheres. The one is limited by the other. Madison, Jefferson, Burke, and Hamilton saw that there should be a separation of government in the political sphere from social rule. Augustine saw it first. The City of God is separate from, though present within, the City of Man. Of relevance here also is the theory of the two swords of emperor and church.

More basic still is the precept: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to the Lord what is the Lord’s. Caesar’s domain is not comprehensive. In the Christian view of things, it cannot be comprehensive. It is a mistake, then, to fuse government and society within the political authority. Fundamentally, the point is that the political should never become coextensive with the social. Political options should always lag behind their more organic social counterparts.

Obviously, there are other modern views that proceed from different starting points. The Enlightenment postulate (the French Enlightenment it would seem), per Drucker, was that human reason is absolute. That attitude helps explain Robespierre and his Goddess of Reason. Rationalists believe that living men can possess perfected, absolute reason. That belief energizes government ambition and action, especially over against what is considered a superstitious worldview.

But Americans, Drucker asserted, retained an emphasis on man’s fallen nature. Their liberalism was based on humility, love, and faith. Accordingly, the founders were less willing to invest institutions with European confidence in the combination of rationality and government power. For Americans, it was safer to draw lines between the political and the social, lest the former overwhelm the latter and take freedom with it.

Two Ideals Needing Balance

The Future of Industrial Man won Drucker an invitation to engage in a deep study of General Motors Corporation (GM). That study gave rise to Drucker’s third book, The Concept of the Corporation (1946). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that GM was the primary subject matter, Drucker reflected less directly on spiritual matters in this book. Still, even in a book about GM and essentially for GM, his Christian humanism was evident, as he wrote about the importance of examining the “particular beliefs, aims, and purposes of American society with its roots in the Christian tradition.”

He also observed that, in America, the two concepts of equality of human dignity and equality of opportunity go together. They appear to be in tension, with one potentially tilting toward anarchy and the other in the direction of hierarchy, but Drucker rejected the appearance for what he saw as a deeper reality: the two beliefs can only be realized together. And it is within the Christian tradition that we must find the resources to balance them. This is the task of statesmen. Freedom demands respect for both ideals.

“Freedom is an article of faith, and not a law of physics,” Drucker wrote. “It is perfectly possible, therefore, not to believe in it. If the collectivists have no faith in it, they cannot be proven wrong.” After making a prudential argument for the superiority of a free society (which I do not repeat here), he went on to discount it in favor of a more transcendent view, referring to the prudential case as “only a secondary argument for those who, like the author [himself], believe in freedom as an article of faith and as commanded by the nature of God and of man.”

From Split to Twin Allegiance

In The New Society (1950), Drucker returned to his focus on totalitarianism and again voiced Christian concerns. In his view, the modern age enabled totalitarianism through its reliance on mass production. In a society centered on mass production, people cannot be economically productive unless they have access to the industrial apparatus. A large and determined government can keep dissenting individuals from gaining access to the means of production and thus from the tools needed to make a living.

While one might be tempted to downplay the threat of mass production wielded by totalitarians, Drucker pointed out that faith and conscience would be under siege in such a regime. “[T]hough a totalitarian government may not be able to control the souls of its citizens, it can control all their actions; and how long will a faith persist if it cannot come to life in works?” In his first book, he’d already written about the ineffectiveness of a Christianity that is successfully confined to the purely private sphere.

In a section on the economics of labor, Drucker applied the kind of thought one might think natural to a Christian scholar. He saw the union/management relationship as similar in some ways to the one that has at times existed between church and state. Both claim the allegiance of the people, and yet the two may not be able to live long without each other. If they devolve into pure conflict, the whole society may be threatened.

Since a split allegiance can create negative tensions in a society, Drucker said it would be better to find a way to turn the split allegiance into a twin allegiance. Once again, we have the two swords. This twin allegiance may be the key to establishing the new social system successfully integrated by Christianity that Drucker seemed to hope for in his first book.

But even if church and state cannot find the greater harmony Drucker thought desirable, the church can still serve a positive function as a loyal protester or critic of sorts. The existence of dissenting institutions, such as the Christian church in a secular society, or a liberal arts college in the business world, helps a society change and adapt, recover and build, he argues. In other words, the church holds out an alternative and the opportunity for renewal.

The Need for Virtue & Spiritual Values

Finally, in Landmarks of Tomorrow (1957) Drucker tried to lift the modern mind above its increasing materialism. He began the book with a tale of two sons, one a geneticist and the other a theology student, who both saw Inherit the Wind yet could not understand the conflict between science and religion. Their father, on the other hand, had been so affected by the Scopes trial that he had left the ministry and become a lawyer. The brothers could not understand his reasoning. The implication of the story appears to be that the so-called war between science and religion is fundamentally wrongheaded. Drucker went on to argue for the clear evidence of purpose in the universe, right down to the purposeful order within the structure of matter. He saw purpose built into the universe rather than lurking on the outside.

As in his other books, Drucker remained committed to understanding individuals as spiritual beings with allegiances superior to those demanded of them by organizations. Roles such as husband, father, citizen, member of a profession, and church member should not be subordinated to roles assigned by organizations. This limitation on the demands of organizations could be extended even to the institution of sovereignty. Drucker viewed sovereignty as a tool to be used for the good of mankind. But if sovereignty becomes a threat to human survival, as with the arms race and nuclear brinksmanship, then it must be limited. He argued that the powers of destruction that have been acquired by human sovereignties are so vast as to be fundamentally illegitimate.

He also discussed education in the book, and his perspective on this topic is especially pertinent in a time when utilitarian views of learning are increasingly influential. Drucker thought the twentieth century was probably the first in which education became a legitimate mass investment rather than a luxury item. Part of what makes his view interesting is that he insisted on the need for education to take cognizance of virtue and spiritual values. The well-educated man should gain the ability to choose well “between service to a true and to a false master.”

Here, Drucker ended what I consider the first major phase of his career as an author. He concluded it by challenging scientists not to settle for purely materialistic answers to the questions raised by their discoveries. The expansion of human knowledge and power only opens the door to further inquiries regarding the meaning of human existence and of the human spirit. But the nature of the challenge has shifted. Before, we had to be concerned with threats to knowledge. The trial of Socrates might be an example there. But now, we face the threat of knowledge. Here, we might think about biological weapons or cloning. If we do not have virtue, if we do not have spiritual values, we will not make right decisions about what to do with our newfound power. That brings us back to the responsible freedom Drucker saw emanating from the Christian tradition.

As of the late 1950s, he was hopeful that the trend away from spiritual values and religion had been reversed. He called upon his readers to recognize our need for the “I and Thou” and to take responsibility for all that happens to the least of these.

Freedom Rooted in the Spirit

I would like to conclude by returning briefly to an extended quote from Drucker’s first book, which seems, in many ways, to capture the key theme of his writing in those early years.

Realization of freedom and equality was first sought in the spiritual sphere. The creed that all men are equal in the world beyond and free to decide their fate in the other world by their actions and thoughts in this one, which, accordingly, is but a preparation for the real life, may have been only an attempt to keep the masses down, as the eighteenth century and the Marxists assert. But to the people in the eleventh or in the thirteenth century the promise was real. That every Last Judgment at a church door shows popes, bishops, and kings in damnation was not just the romantic fantasy of a rebellious stonemason. It was a real and truthful expression of that epoch of our history which projected freedom and equality into the spiritual sphere.

The underlying point expressed poignantly by Drucker in the paragraph above is one on which we have only a tenuous hold today. Matters of freedom and equality are rooted in the spirit. We should hope that those who follow Drucker in instructing us how to organize modern life will have a grasp of the whole as comprehensive as his was.

Republished with gracious permission from Touchstone and the author.

This essay was first published here in September 2014. 

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The featured image, uploaded by Jeff McNeill, is a photograph of Peter F. Drucker, taken 2 June 2011. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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