Self-made men, debunked

A new book makes a strong case that nobody ever makes it on their own in America

Published April 30, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The self-made myth is one of the most cherished foundation stones of the conservative theology. Nurtured by Horatio Alger and generations of beloved boys' stories, it sits at the deep black heart of their entire worldview, where it provides the essential justification for a great many other common right-wing beliefs. It feeds the accusation that government is evil because it exists only to redistribute wealth from society's producers (self-made, of course) and its parasites (who refuse to work). It justifies conservative rage against progressives, who are seen as wanting to use government to forcibly take away what belongs to the righteous wealthy. It's piously invoked by hedge fund managers and oil billionaires, who think that being required to reinvest any of their wealth back into the public society that made it possible is "punishing success." It's the foundational belief on which all of Ayn Rand's novels stand.

AlterNetIf you've heard it once from your Fox-watching uncle, you've probably heard it a hundred times. "The government never did anything for me, dammit," he grouses. "Everything I have, I earned. Nobody ever handed me anything. I did it all on my own. I'm a self-made man."

He's just plain wrong. Flat-out, incontrovertibly, inarguably wrong. So profoundly wrong, in fact, that we probably won't be able to change the national discourse on taxes, infrastructure, education, government investment, technology policy, transportation, welfare, or our future prospects as a country until we can effectively convince the country of the monumental wrongness of this one core point.

The Built-Together Realty

Brian Miller and Mike Lapham have written the book that lays out the basic arguments we can use to begin to set things right. "The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed" is a clear, concise, easy-to-read-and-use summary of government's central role in creating the conditions for economic prosperity and personal opportunity.

Miller, the executive director of United for a Fair Economy, and Lapham, a co-founder of UFE's Responsible Wealth project, argue that the self-made myth absolves our economic leaders from doing anything about inequality, frames fair wages as extortion from deserving producers, and turns the social safety net into a moral hazard that can only promote laziness and sloth.They argue that progressives need to overwrite this fiction with the far more supportable idea of the "built-together reality," which points up the truth that nobody in America ever makes it alone. Every single private fortune can be traced back to basic public investments that have, as Warren Buffett argues in the book, created the most fertile soil on the planet for entrepreneurs to succeed.

To their credit, Miller and Lapham don't ask us to take this point on faith. Right out of the gate, they regale us with three tales of famous "self-made" men -- Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch brothers, whose own stories put the lie to the myth. (This section alone is worth the price of admission -- these guys so did not make it on their own!) Once those treasured right-wing exemplars are thoroughly discredited, the middle of the book offers a welcome corrective: interviews with 14 wealthy Americans -- including well-known names like Warren Buffett, Ben Cohen, Abigail Disney, and Amy Domini, who are very explicit about the ways in which government action laid the groundwork for their success. Over and over, these people credit their wealth to:

* An excellent education received in public schools and universities. Jerry Fiddler of Wind River Software (you're probably running his stuff in your cellphone or car) went to the University of Chicago, and started his computer career at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Bookseller Thelma Kidd got her start at Texas Tech and the University of Michigan. Warren Buffett went to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska as an undergrad. And beyond that: several interviewees paid for their education with federal Pell Grants and Stafford loans.

Over and over, the point gets made: Public universities -- and the good public schools that feed them, and the funding programs that put them within financial reach -- have hatched millions of American entrepreneurs who might not have been fledged without that opportunity to get an education.

 * The support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies. Ben Cohen notes that almost all the business training he and Jerry Greenfield had came from the extension courses at the University of Vermont and Penn State, and small brochures produced by the SBA. And as they spun up, they also got an Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. Other interviewees started their businesses in incubators or other quarters provided or arranged by their local city governments.

* A strong regulatory environment that protected their businesses from being undercut by competitors willing to cut corners, and ensure that their manufacturing inputs are of consistently high quality. Glynn Lloyd of Boston's City Fresh Foods points out that nobody in the food business can get by without reliable sources of clean water, and that the USDA inspection process is an important piece of his quality control.

* Enforceable copyright and intellectual property laws that enabled them to protect good ideas. Abigail Disney recalls that her father, Roy Disney, and her Uncle Walt made and lost one great cartoon character -- Oswald the Rabbit -- because they didn't have copyright protection. They didn't repeat that mistake when Mickey Mouse was born three years later, launching the Disney empire.

* A robust system of roads, ports, airports and mass transit that enabled them to reliably move their goods both within the U.S. and around the world. Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing (the makers of Fat Tire beer) points out, "Beer is heavy, and it needs to be transported in vehicles. Certainly, the highway system has been important to New Belgium Brewing." Lloyd also points out that Boston's excellent public transit system enables him to draw on a far wider employee base.

* The government's role in creating the Internet, without which almost no modern company can function. Anirvan Chatterjee built (now a subsidiary of, the world's biggest online used-book marketplace, an achievement that wouldn't have been remotely imaginable without DARPA, the establishment and enforcement of common protocols, and significant congressional investment in the 1980s to take the Internet commercial.

* The ability to issue public stock in a fair, reliable regulated marketplace  -- a benefit that raised the value of several interviewees' companies by about 30 percent overnight. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, spoke with concern about the loss of trust in this system over the past decade. "The corporate scandals [Enron and WorldCom] caused people to stop trusting the numbers that companies were reporting. Imagine how much value is created by trust and the whole system that assures that trust?"

Besides the government, most of those interviewed also locate their companies in the context of a large community of customers they utterly depend on for their success. "It takes a village to raise a business," says Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, a sustainable-products company that came about through partnerships and grants from UC Berkeley, Peet's Coffee and other interested parties.

Others are quick to acknowledge the contributions of their employees, without whom their companies wouldn't exist. When Gun Denhart and her husband sold their company, children's clothier Hanna Andersson, in 2003, they distributed a healthy portion of the sale proceeds to their employees, prorated on the basis of their length of service.

All businesses exist within a vast network of human connections -- customers, vendors, employees, investors and the communities that support their work. These stories make it clear: Saying you did it all yourself and therefore don't owe anybody anything is about as absurd (and self-centered) as saying that you raised yourself from babyhood, without any input from your parents, and therefore don't have any further obligations to your family.

The Role of Luck and Timing

We all know wealth isn't just a matter of hard work, brains or talent. Most of us probably know some hard-working, brilliant or extraordinarily talented people who aren't being rewarded at anything close to their true value. So perhaps the most intriguing and useful part of the book is a long discussion of the many other factors that go into making someone wealthy -- factors that are blithely brushed off the table whenever the self-made myth is invoked.

Rich conservatives have to downplay the role of luck. After all, if we think they're just lucky, rather than exceptionally deserving of exceptional wealth, we'll be a lot more justified in taxing their fortunes. But luck -- the fortunate choice of parents, for example, or landing the right job or industry at the right time -- plays a huge role in any individual's success. Timing also matters: Most of the great fortunes of the 19th century were accumulated by men born during the 1830s, who were of an age to capitalize on the huge economic boom created by the expansion of the railroads after the Civil War. Likewise, the great tech fortunes almost all belong to people born between 1950 and 1955, who were well-positioned to create pioneering companies in the tech boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. Such innovative times don't come along very often; and being born when the stars lined up just so doesn't make you more entitled. It just makes you luckier.

Because Americans in general like to think we're an equal society, we're also quick to discount the importance of race, gender, appearance, class, upbringing and other essential forms of social capital that can open doors for people who have it -- and close them on those who don't. The self-made myth allows us to deflect our attention from these critical factors, undermining our determination to level the playing field for those who don't start life with a pocket fat with advantages.

What Changes?

The book winds up with specific policy prescriptions that can bring the built-together reality back into sharper political and cultural focus. The last section shows how abandoning the self-made myth for a built-together reality creates fresh justification for a more progressive income tax, the repeal of the capital gains exemption and raising corporate and inheritance taxes. It also makes a far more compelling philosophical backdrop against which progressives can argue for increased investment in infrastructure, education, a fair minimum wage, a strong social safety net, and better anti-discrimination laws.

But the most striking thing about the book -- implicit throughout, but explicit nowhere -- was the alternative vision of capitalism it offers. Throughout the book, Miller and Lapham seem to be making the tacit case that businesses premised on the built-together reality are simply more fair, more generous, more sustainable, and more humane. While far from perfect (Disney's empire being one case in point), they are, as a group, markedly more aware of the high costs of exploiting their workers, their customers, the economy or the environment. Owners who believe themselves to be beholden to a community for their success will tend to value and invest back into that community, and they seem to be far more willing to realize when they've got enough and it's time to start giving back.

The implication is clear: if we can interrupt American's long love affair with the self-made myth, we will effectively pull the center tent pole out from under the selfish assumptions that shelter most of the excesses of corporate behavior that characterize our age. This isn't just another point of contention between progressives and conservatives; it's somewhere near the very center of the disconnect between our worldviews. "The Self-Made Myth" is an essential primer that gives us the language and stories to begin talking about this difference, and the tools to begin to bend that conversation in some new and more hopeful directions.

By Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson is a trained social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page.

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