Colorado Springs – a city in search of leadership

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From the Austrian School of Economics to its Chicago School descendant, it has been an article of faith that if left to its own devices, the marketplace will perform more efficiently than if the government had anything to do with it.

The rule of law, of course, should be upheld, and deviant behavior — cheating, stealing, and misrepresentation — would be handled by courts of law.

Businesses could rely on the government to step in when needed, not too often but forcefully enough to punish and deter potential abusers. According to this model, political (and legal) authorities play a reactive (rather than proactive) role. So who leads the marketplace? Is it indeed Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or rather the “impartial spectator”? Are the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg needed?

Leadership is defined in most cases in terms of the social influence a leader exerts over others to move them toward the accomplishment of a common goal, whether military or moral. In some cases, we have tried to transform battlefield leadership into politics, assuming one is a proving ground for the other (from Washington to Eisenhower). What about market leaders? Where or how do they cut their teeth?

Some argue that leadership grows organically when one company increases in size and importance and eventually sets the trends of the marketplace. Others suggest that trade organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, provide cooperative objectives that benefit all participants as a way of leading. And yet others are appalled by any claim for market leadership because it reeks of socialist-like planning that constricts the untethered competitive and entrepreneurial spirit.

When we think about our own microcosm, Gen. William Palmer and Spencer Penrose come to mind. In their respective ways, they demonstrated how leadership in one field could be translated into founding a city and turning it into a mecca for prospectors as well as a health retreat for tuberculosis patients.

Who are their successors today?

We have plenty of former military leaders in our midst, some retired generals and colonels. We have some entrepreneurs for whom the city has been a source of wealth. Are they stepping up? Have they done more than field surrogates whose own statures aren’t up to par? Perhaps the conditions of a century ago don’t fit the present.

The city’s reliance on government largesse flies in the face of its claims for conservative ideals of small or no government. Between military bases and a growing population of retirees (with “entitlement” benefits, Social Security and Medicare), it seems that the city’s marketplace is relatively small.

Second, if the city’s political leaders indeed represent the sentiments of their conservative constituents, why aren’t they allowing a more laissez-faire economic climate? Why outlaw recreational marijuana retail shops?

Third, given a utilities monopoly and a choice to retain it as a municipal entity, there is no political oversight. Instead of serving ratepayers and minimizing waste, Utilities has become its own political powerhouse, insulated from transparency and accountability. Would Palmer or Penrose tolerate this situation?

Fourth, to promote economic growth, forward thinking and vision are required. Who, outside the embattled mayor and the distant state authority, is leading the local charge for the City for Champions? If our local millionaires were more vocal in support, would the dysfunctional Council and other groups step in line?

Are the conditions now so different from a century ago that no leadership can be expected? All we need to do is look at UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak as a leader. Perhaps her academic specialty gives her an edge; perhaps it’s the mountains where the university is perched that allows her to see farther; perhaps it’s just her DNA that makes her an effective leader. Whatever the reason, she leads.

Is UCCS alone in this visionary quest for greatness? Is the city happy to remain in its complacent hibernation? With a contracting federal budget, perhaps it’s time to focus on the athletic and health advantage of our altitude.

And while the Olympics remain fresh on our minds, it’s time to focus on doing more for the U.S. Olympic Committee than anything else.

Wake up, Colorado Springs! Every century we get an opportunity to remake ourselves. City for Champions and legalized marijuana provide such opportunities.

Since the “next Penrose” seems reluctant so far to do more than buy local gems (Broadmoor) or duds (Gazette), we have two choices: Implore someone to lead us to greatness, or use what’s within our reach to become a vital city that attracts young professionals to invest their energy here and now.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com. See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com.