BOSTON -- If historian Barbara Tuchman is right about a rising tide of incompetence that is a symptom of national decadence, she should take heart from the example of David Nosiglia, sausage maker.
In a recent essay, Tuchman decried ''a deteriorating ethic in many spheres.'' Her focus is government -- the sending to the Persian Gulf of the frigate USS Stark, poorly officered and unsuited to its mission, and the Iran shambles in which government operatives plunged into strange nations ''with no more serious thought than tourists off a cruise ship.''
Her examples of incompetence are fair, if obvious. But they arise from the plague of small incompetences from which the big ones rise -- products poorly made and carelessly repaired, restaurant meals sloppily served, services indifferently rendered all around us. A social climate of tolerance for incompetence breeds big botches by government.
Don't blame David Nosiglia. He is a 27-year-old who, from a nondescript building at 15 Coventry St., Boston, manufactures sausages and other delectables. Nine years ago, with the single-mindedness that is the father of excellence, he decided he wanted to make the best sausages -- the freshest, finest, healthiest -- in America. He does.
His three-year journey to craftsmanship took him to apprenticeship to a master butcher in Germany, where he worked 14-hour days, and half-days on Saturdays; on Sundays he went to the factory to see how certain salamis are made. His travels took him to Switzerland and France and Milwaukee, and to Louisiana to learn Cajun cooking.
At 17, he had decided that he, unlike his siblings, was a ''hands-on'' fellow who did not want to go to college. He did something that many young people now slogging without enthusiasm through college should do: he chose a craft, rather than the credentials chase. He now has a wife who, dressed as he is in jeans and a sweatshirt and leaning casually on a menacing-looking grinder, clearly has a heart for any fate. He and she and his father, with just three helpers, are making sausages (and smoked turkey, cheeses, trout and other things) in smaller quantities and much higher quality than is necessary.
But both the small quantity and high quality are necessary to the Nosiglias. The quantity is a function of their insistence on quality, and the insistence itself is their vocation. A cynic has said that when people are free to do as they please, they usually are pleased to imitate each other. Not the Nosiglias.
David Nosiglia spurns the categorical imperative of capitalism -- maximum expansion. Not for him ever-expanding production, more outlets, franchises. He will remain a micro-manufacturer because, as he says with the arresting eloquence of the severely plain-spoken, ''I will always have to be in a sausage kitchen.'' And no matter to whom he might delegate authority, ''they're never going to take the same interest I do.''
He quickly learned the futility of trying to sell to large supermarkets. The supermarkets' buyers all came quickly to the (to them) crucial question: ''What's your price?'' Nosiglia's prices are higher than those of the industry's giants. But a discerning minority of customers who care about high quality will seek out those who provide it.
(One regular customer is after a particular quality. The customer is a mother who appears every Friday to purchase the strongly seasoned garlic sausages. She serves them to her daughter for supper on weekend date nights. The daughter has not yet caught on to the mother's motives.)
A realist has said that although truth is scarce, the supply always seems to exceed demand. The same could be said about quality. But not in Boston, where Sam Adams beer sells for much more than Budweiser, but sells briskly. It is produced here by one of the new ''micro-breweries"; they are another sign that individualism is alive and well, on both the supply side and the demand side. Boston, the cradle of American liberty, may now be the incubator of a movement demanding quality.
Today bookstore shelves groan beneath the weight of tomes telling us how to beat the Japanese at their own game, which used to be our game: quality manufacturing. Most of the books stress managerial skills. Such skills are necessary but are not substitutes for the pride that makes a man like Nosiglia pleased to stand in sneakers in a work place that is small but all his. He is of geopolitical significance: an infection of competence can even affect government.
It has been said that the phrase ''dull as ditch water'' is silly because a drop of ditch water, seen through a microscope, teems with life. America's population is like that. There are never enough Nosiglias, but we are never without them.