Imagine that you are a career counselor at a university and you are making a case to a group of students about a promising career track. You point out that a field of great opportunity awaits them, one that gives free rein to their creativity, their intelligence and, yes, even their desire to fashion a just and caring society.
Philosopher on the Factory Floor
What is your recommendation? You suggest to these young men and women, so full of promise and idealism, that they take a job in a tire factory.
If you manage to get out of the room alive, or at least not get fired, your reputation as a career counselor would surely suffer irreparable harm. What young man or woman today would eagerly choose to work in a manufacturing plant (noisy, hot and dirty places filled with laborers) when the green pastures of twenty-first-century information technology, professional schools, and air-conditioned “knowledge work” await them?
Every student who has bought into the fiction of the “post-industrial” economy should read a remarkable new book from a man who spent much of his life around tire factories. This month, Lexington Books publishes the first English translation of François Michelin’s And Why Not? in its “New Series in Ethics and Economics” edited by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg. An extended interview with two journalists, the 107-page book examines the industrialist’s business management philosophy, his views on the French penchant for central planning and his deeply felt Catholic faith. Michelin, now 76 and retired from the company, lifted Group Michelin from also-ran status to a place among the world’s largest tire manufacturers. The appearance of And Why Not? is all the more notable for the fact that Michelin, despite his prominence in France, assiduously avoided journalists and interviewers for most of his life.
Michelin’s is an essentially sacramental view of life, in the sense that he everywhere sees the synergy, the cooperative exchange, between God and man. That synergy is at work even in the tire factories and research labs of Clermont-Ferrand, the Michelin company town, where he admits that every time he stepped out of his spartan office and into the sphere of the workman and the engineer, he was “intimidated” by the pride and industriousness he saw. For readers of this book who previously believed that God was immanent only in pristine natural landscapes, And Why Not? will be a minor revelation.
As Michelin puts it: “Factory work expresses perfectly what we do every day. Essentially, it is an action that consists of taking raw materials and making a marketable product out of them. It is a noble act.”
Spark of Innovation
The source of this nobility is, for Michelin, the Christian view of the human person “revealed as a free creation.” Hence, even the manufacture of a truck tire (an amazingly complex technical and commercial enterprise, in reality) is an ennobling expression of human freedom and creativity.
“All of life’s successes and failures are the means by which this free creation seeks to forge its way in the bustling world of men, in a scientific, technical world,” Michelin says. “In the business world, as well, it is essential that this free creation somehow not lose sight of the essence of its own mode of functioning.”
Michelin had a talent for cultivating this spark of free creation in others. He speaks warmly of Marius Mignol, the inventor of the radial tire, who joined the Michelin firm as a worker in the printing department, unequipped with impressive degrees from technical institutes, and wound up becoming, in Michelin’s view, the tire engineer of the century.
“You know,” Michelin says, “some people recruit their inventors from lofty mountain heights, but sometimes it is the ignorant person who has the advantage over someone who has learned, in that he does not live in a graveyard of ideas.”
Mignol was behind the development of the radial tire which, incredibly, had detractors within the company. Michelin resisted the advice of some within the firm who predicted that the radial, because of its extended service life, would ruin sales. In fact, radial technology introduced an altogether new measure of safety and control for vehicle owners and catapulted Group Michelin to new heights. Again, Michelin put his faith in human creativity the wellspring of business growth rather than the cold analytical projections of technocrats.
The negative view of the radial innovation “was an incredible ideological mistake by old fogies in their mid-twenties who preferred to extrapolate curves rather than to put their faith in the human imagination,” Michelin recalled.
How did Michelin reconcile his belief in the free creativity of the human person with France’s move to central planning and its pervasive welfare state? He didn’t. “France has been governed by the spiritual sons of Marx,” Michelin says. That Marxist inheritance, he maintains, has placed a huge burden on the domestic economy and put his nation, uneasy about pulling down protectionist trade barriers, at a disadvantage in international markets.
“If you want politics to help in creating a healthy economy, it is necessary for citizens to become the subjects of the State, whereas, in point of fact, they are looked on as objects,” Michelin says. “People are viewed as ‘fiscal reserves’ and the State is busy using them up.”
Moreover, the “absurdly destructive logic” of Marxist economic theory also reduces human relationships to systems that destroy respect for others. “For me the matter has no ambiguity about it at all,” Michelin says. “Society is made for man and not the opposite.”
As an employer of 125,000 people in a truly global corporation, Michelin was acutely sensitive to his public role and the ethical responsibilities his position carried. Yet he doesn’t soft-pedal the adverse effects of a free market, including plant closings and layoffs, an “ordeal” which cuts at the “very substance” of the company.
Michelin even expresses gratitude for his company’s independent auditors and their role in enforcing the “regularity and good order” of financial information released to shareholders. In this, he stands in sharp contrast to the dot-com hustlers, stock market manipulators and self-serving corporate executives who lately are soaking up so much space in U.S. newspapers. Michelin built a company that now has a business presence in 170 countries and churns out 844,000 tires a day. He did this without losing gratitude to the people who worked for him.
Roots of Reality
The modern corporation, in Michelin’s view, is an “ongoing creation” of employees, shareholders and customers bound up in the very concrete and tangible life of making products and delivering services. But it is a creation with a deeper dimension, one that moves forward by a power of innovation that “frees the imagination and encourages risk-taking going to the limits in order to see what happens.”
Everyone at Group Michelin, the former managing partner says, is “engaged in an adventure together over the long haul. To approach the business from a merely financial point of view is a major mistake.”
Over the course of And Why Not?, the journalists Ivan Levai and Yves Messarovitch assail Michelin with one statist platitude after another, only to have the gentle philosopher-industrialist patiently expose errors of conventional thinking. You get the impression that by the end of these chats, Michelin’s interviewers were not only persuaded of his good common sense, but charmed by his reasonableness and his clear-eyed humanity.
“The main thing is to live but, in order to do this, one has to feed on the reality that is hidden behind the facts,” Michelin says. “One has to seek out root causes.”
Without any hint of paradox, Michelin asserts that to apprehend reality, the intellect in search of root causes must “accept the mystery of things.” For him, the essential questions about the mystery of God and human existence must be pursued along the “thread of their implications,” through the Gospel, the proverbs, the psalms, and the texts of the Church.
In these sources, the gentleman from Clermont-Ferrand, the man of riches and privilege who always hung a pair of workman’s coveralls behind his office door, found his truth: “You will discover an answer that goes beyond the human intellect, but it is an answer that is meant to be savored, and an answer that shines in the night like the North Star.”
John Couretas is communications manager for the Acton Institute.
This article is a product of the Acton Institute www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 and is reprinted with permission.