A moral argument for manufacturing

August 6, 2012
By: Jim O’Leary

Despite media coverage and political candidates’ speeches about the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy, the sector continues to struggle. Why? What will it take to address the various problems plaguing manufacturing? A longtime industry professional offers his opinion founded upon recent historical events.

Child holding US flag

Editor’s Note: U.S. manufacturing has been in a steady decline for decades. Although many people, particularly during this presidential election year, talk about how important industry is to the U.S. economy, manufacturing continues to struggle. Why is it that very little progress has been made in halting the decline and restoring manufacturing to its prominent position in the U.S.? Longtime industry professional Jim O’Leary believes the answer lies in a failure to establish a moral argument for supporting manufacturing. What follows is his rationale for this belief—the moral argument for manufacturing.

I recently attended a seminar put on by a major tool supplier that was also attended by many local leaders in manufacturing and community colleges. The presentation centered on the need for high-quality manufacturing professionals in the future. Its major focus was on skills training necessary to build a strong technical workforce.

As the presentation proceeded, I got a nagging feeling that something critical was missing. It was the same feeling that I have been getting for a long time when I read or hear someone talk about manufacturing. This feeling comes in the form of many unresolved questions, such as:

  • Where are we going to find motivated people to train in these highly technical systems?
  • How do we change the negative perceptions and cultural bias against our industries?
  • How can we change the American cultural ethos to once again support manufacturing and its tremendous wealth-creation potential?
  • How do we convince young Americans that manufacturing is an honorable profession and to look at it as a good potential career choice?
  • And last, what can a strong and vibrant manufacturing sector do to rebuild our nation’s economy and restore us to the premier economic powerhouse of the world again?


As I enter into the twilight of my career, I have given these questions much thought over the years—reading and talking to many thoughtful people about these very issues. I believe that American manufacturing is suffering from a loss in cultural awareness. I want to address this issue, but first, we should look at how two other cultural issues were addressed in our nation’s recent past.

There are many great debates in our lives, and almost all of them can be reduced down to a very simple question: Is it right or wrong? If you strip away all the superfluous arguments and posturing, we almost always get to the core questions of right-wrong, good-bad, and moral-immoral. Using our core values, we all must process and answer these questions. In some cases, these questions become the focus of national discussions and they become issues that have a long-term and profound impact on our lives.

We are losing the national debate over manufacturing because our focus is wrong.  Our arguments do not have a moral foundation. If we are to win the debate, we must premise our arguments on a foundation of moral certitude. To date, all of our arguments have fallen on deaf ears because we have not tied them to a core moral foundation. 

We must look at some of the great questions of our recent past and see how they were addressed and answered. These questions took on the character of a moral imperative. It was within this moral framework that our nation debated and answered these questions.

Two recent movements illustrate the moral framework principle used by the winning side. Let’s briefly examine them and see how arguments were set up and won on a national scale.  

Examples of Previous Moral Imperatives

The civil rights movement in the 1960s and the environmental movement in the ’70s asked serious cultural questions that had deep moral implications. In the case of civil rights, the underlying issue was:  Shall people be deprived of their basic human rights based on skin color or ethnicity? This became a moral question that our nation had to answer.

The same can be said of the environmental movement. The central question became: Do businesses and people have the right to release toxins that pollute the air, water, and ground? This was answered with a moral argument that these practices cause grave harm to people, animals, plant life, and the earth. Therefore, it is a moral wrong.

In both cases, a relatively small minority choose to do battle with the powerfully entrenched status quo to correct a moral wrong. They prevailed because of the soundness of their moral claims. Even today, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” is a resounding statement on the moral clarity of the civil rights movement. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring also laid a powerful moral foundation for the environmental movement.

Both groups prevailed because they articulated their moral claims while using facts and propaganda to bolster their cases. In the court of public opinion, both won based on the strengths of their facts and propaganda after the moral argument supporting the claim was established. This is a critical point. The public at large paid little attention to these groups until it was convinced that they had legitimate moral claims. The appeals in fact and logic, along with propaganda, carried no weight until the American people and politicians were convinced that these were serious moral issues that demanded their attention.

I am not espousing for or against these two movements. I am pointing out that they had deep and far-reaching implications to our society and for much of the world. Both of them now are deeply ingrained into all aspects of our culture and society. 

Our society is profoundly different today because of the impact these two movements had. Laws were enacted. Policy was developed to flesh out the laws. Educational institutions changed curricula to teach both civil rights and environmental tenants. The entire framework of the American social ethos made a dramatic shift in the space of a few short decades.   

Power of a Moral Argument

This isthe power of a moral argument supported with facts and opinion. For the most part, facts and opinions have little long-term sway with American public opinion without a moral foundation. We have personally witnessed this in our lifetime with both of these movements. In both cases, we watched with fascination as the dramas played out in the national and local news media.

These activists with their moral conviction defied law and custom to advance their beliefs. They were willing to risk police threats, incarceration, and many injustices to advance their causes.  These people had the power of their absolute conviction that they held the moral high ground in the debate. They won because their opponents could not articulate an effective moral position to defend the status quo.

Manufacturing’s Image

American manufacturing has been in decline for more than 30 years. In the court of public opinion, we are viewed as not worthy of consideration. Our national conscious, culture, politics, and education have been tilted toward believing that manufacturing is not an honorable profession but a dumping ground for the less desirable. It also is perceived as having no value toward increasing the quality of human life. In many quarters, it is looked on as a demeaning and dreary vocation.

Manufacturing also has been losing the debate for the same 30 years. We are losing because we are not making a moral argument for our profession. In the world of business and profit, we will never win arguing for jobs. It is shallow, has no depth, and is not a moral position.  

If we are to win this debate, we must make a moral argument that resonates with the American people. Only then will we be able to return manufacturing to a respected position in our society. We will not succeed if the American people are not convinced of our moral certainties.

The Moral Case for U.S. Manufacturing

What is the moral case for manufacturing? It is many things. First and foremost, it is servant to all the people of this nation. Manufacturing is the bone, sinew, and muscle that support our economy.  It is the foundation for our entire economy. It is the only activity that can create true wealth. And this wealth enhances every person’s life in many countless and untold ways. American manufacturing exists to improve, maintain, and protect each and every American citizen’s life.  

All of American manufacturing can be distilled down into one basic statement: Manufacturing, as it exists in America, has one sole purpose—to give all people the opportunity to acquire, maintain, improve, and protect their quality of life. This is the sum total of what manufacturing stands for in the United States.

Conversely, manufacturing in some other countries, most notably China, is used to aggregate power and wealth to the national government, state organizations, and a select few individuals. They do this at the expense of their people and environment. The life quality of the average Chinese citizen is expendable in the quest for increasing the national government’s power and wealth.  

Now Is the Time

It is time for us to establish the moral argument for American manufacturing. Only a moral argument will stir enough people to force a cultural change in this country. It is this cultural change in the American consciousness that we should be striving for.

Now is the time to engage in battle with the entrenched forces arrayed against American manufacturing. These forces can be brought to heel in the court of public opinion if the moral claim is established in the American mind. It is the power of our moral arguments that will force significant change in our country’s perception of manufacturing.    

The established powers in politics, business, finance, and education do not have a moral case supporting their suppression of American manufacturing. Their positions can be exposed as shallow and without a moral foundation. All of them have sold American prosperity down the river for personal power or monetary gain. Their activities have brought this great nation to the brink of bankruptcy and ruin. In the space of a short 50 years, our leaders have taken us from being the world’s economic powerhouse to begging the Chinese to finance our public debt so that we don’t default on it.

They have lost the moral standing to lead this nation! We should challenge all of them in the court of public opinion with a moral argument. Let them defend their shallow positions in front of the very Americans whose lives are being destroyed by their policies.

Our nation has been struggling with a massive recession for more than five years now. The narrative that our leaders sold to the American people about the personal road to success is disintegrating before their eyes. The political nostrums have not worked. The business community has put profit above human dignity. The financial system is crumbling because its foundation is a house of cards. The educational system has not fulfilled its promise to provide relevant skills for a good life. We are out of options, and there are no national reserves left.

American manufacturing is the only thing that can rebuild our nation. It has a proven historical record of creating tremendous wealth for the nation. This wealth benefits all the people in our country. It is American manufacturing that built this nation, defended it in wars, and increased the prosperity and health of all the people. Its created wealth supports every person no matter what their profession or walk in life is.

Like the civil rights and environmental movements before, we can argue and defend against all the forces arrayed against us. American manufacturing can win this because we have the moral grounds to build a powerful case to present to the American people.

Americans are a moral and generous people. Our country was founded on a moral premise with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Our citizens respond favorably to strong moral arguments. They are ready to hear and respond to our message, which is a powerful one if presented as a moral argument.

Jim O’Leary

Jim O’Leary

Tool Engineer
Bob’s Design Engineering Inc.
3325 S.W. 229th Ave.
Hillsboro, OR 97007
Phone: 971-235-8787