Mention the country of Turkey and most people think of exotic carpets and rugs, crusader castles and the Blue Mosque, Ottoman potentates, and the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul, but I submit to you that these are mere accidental images, nothing more than the deceptive work of extravagant and over-zealous poets and tour guides. The crusader and the saint and the poets who extol or damn them, are fringe elements to the central symbol of the Turkish people: the entrepreneur.
The Turkish entrepreneur is hard to distinguish from the general populace at first glance. He dresses like his companions, spends a good deal of his free time drinking hot, excessively sugared tea from a tiny glass, and will chat amiably on a variety of subjects of national and local interest. The odds are in favor of him wearing a black-bristle moustache and a stern smile. He most likely works hard to provide for his wife and two to five children, while keeping a few of his earnings aside to bet on his favorite soccer teams. What makes the Turkish entrepreneur stand apart from his peers are his unfathomably deep wells of creativity, his keen eye for a profit, and the flexibility with which he adjusts to changes in the market.
Kahrahman is something of a fixture at the Hodja Inn. Every gentleman who has spent more than one night in the officer’s quarters has been greeted on his jaunt towards the dining hall with a loud smile and “good morning!” followed immediately with a blunt but reasonable, “Shoe shine, friend?” Kahrahman successfully used this simple business opener for years to ply his trade as a boot and shoe polisher for Air Force officers. The man can make boots shine like glass, and probably outshine the best efforts of the most dedicated military Training Instructor. His genius, however, is not in his skill (the trade is a fairly easy one to master) but in his ability to find, keep, and match his skill to the market demand.
Recently the Air Force switched it’s standard Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) to the updated Airman Battle Uniform (ABU). The ABUs are intended to function in any battle environment and include suede leather, easy-care boots that require very little attention from the warrior who is too busy saving the world to stop and polish the toes and heels of his footwear. The general who made the change had nothing but the safety and well-being of his troops in mind, I’m sure, but his uniform policy threatened to undercut Kahrahman’s thriving shoe shine business.
A socialized economy may have resisted the prudent change from BDUs to ABUs, arguing that the net benefit of a time-efficient, versatile uniform didn’t outweigh the social cost of putting smooth leather shoe polishers out of business. After all, Kahrahman and his friends had devoted a large portion of their lives to mastering a specific trade and, the argument would go, were now so confirmed in their vocation it would be unreasonable and unkind to allow the whim of a military leader to put them out.
Op-ed papers would clamor for restitution and justice, claiming that unless the government created a safety net for the shoe shine guild our streets would be filled with the unemployable boot polishers and their young families. No doubt images of school children drop-outs flooding the streets as beggars or filling dangerous factory jobs to help their families make ends meet would be flashed on internet pages and be included among the Associated Press’ top photos of the year. Special interest groups and compassionate charity organizations would lobby for government subsidies for shoe shiners, and Kiwi and other major polish manufacturers would look for government handouts to keep their businesses afloat amid the turmoil of the sharp drop-off in demand for their products.
Not so among the indefatigable Turkish entrepreneurs. Kahrahman continues to greet the 21st century officer with his loud smile and canned pitch. As far as is visible to the outsider, he hasn’t suffered from the declining boot polish market. His moustache remains as black and bristled as his shoe brush once was and he continues to provide for his wife and children a steady income. His business plan, while a simple one, provided room for a shift in the market. Now he comes to work each day with a stiff leather brush, a can of scotch-guard, and a simple rubber cleaning solution. The fifteen minutes he used to spend spit-shining leather to a glassy hue have been cut to a five minute job that includes dirt and stain removal and leather protection, increasing his productivity by 60%. And he accomplishes all of this without the slightest support from his government.
A simple lesson in the remarkable adaptability of the human spirit that makes the imposition of external controls masquerading as compassion doubly lamentable. Not only do those controls fail to produce their stated ends, they also rob men of their right to face challenges, struggle, and know the exhilaration of victory.