The Myth of the Self-Made Man and its Alarming Results
In the United States there is a myth that has been told so often, and told through so many generations, that many Americans believe it to be true. It is the myth of the "self-made man." The myth runs something like this: "In America, the financially successful man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. He doesn't depend on hand-outs or charity, but on his own hard work. He knows that through dedication, determination, and the sweat of his brow, he can and will make a success of himself."
It sounds good, the myth of the self-made man. It would be great if any American, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, could make a success of himself or herself through dedication, determination, and hard work alone. It would be great if the economic security and success of each and every one of us was something we held in our own hands, and controlled through our own efforts. It would be great, in other words, if each and every American had an equal opportunity to enjoy financial success and all of the benefits and perks that come with it.
But we don't. The truth of the matter is, financial success depends on a whole lot more than personal dedication, determination, hard work, or any other factors that are solely under our own control. Those things might or might not be important to financial success, but they are a far cry from the only things required. I would argue in fact, based on common sense and observation alone, that dedication, determination, hard work, and other similar factors count very little toward financial success (and sometimes not at all) unless a lot of other factors fall into place along the way; such factors as education, talent or giftedness, physical attractiveness, personal contacts (who you know), lucky breaks, and a bunch more. Consider, for example, a few comparisons:
John and Paul want to be musicians. John is the son of a working class family in Iowa and has a slightly greater natural talent than Paul does. Paul's father is a successful businessman in New York who knows a few people in the music business. Which of these two has the greater chance of becoming a successful musician?
Linda and Sue dream of careers in modeling and acting. Linda is tall, slender, and attractive. Sue is average in height, weight, and appearance. Which of these two has a better chance of achieving her dream?
David's parents attended Ivy League universities and are established members of the East Coast elite. Susan's parents attended state universities and work as high school teachers. Which of these two has a better chance of becoming a Fortune 500 CEO with an annual salary in the tens of millions?
And one more: Richie's father inherited a multi-billion-dollar company from Richie's grandparents, who inherited it, before that, from Richie's great-grandparents. Charlie's mother was a meth addict and he never knew his father or even who his father was. Which of these two has a better chance of leading a life of physical comfort and economic security?
I think it's pretty obvious that unearned advantages provide some people with, well, doh, advantages that the less fortunate do not have. Life's financial playing field is not equal. And if the playing field is not equal, then the factors over which we have some control - factors like dedication, and determination, and hard work - aren't the only factors needed to win the game. (I'm not saying they aren't important;I believe in being dedicated, determined, and hard-working!) And if other factors are needed to win the game - factors beyond our personal control - then there is no such thing as a 100% self-made man. The self-made man is a myth.
But why does it matter? Who cares? Why should you care?
We should care, you should care, because the myth of the self-made man is symptomatic of an economic philosophy (and, therefore, economic policies) that is unjust and unfair to the vast majority of Americans. According to this philosophy, if you are rich, then you and you alone have earned it; if you are poor, then you and you alone deserve it; if you are middle class, then you are middle class as a result of your efforts, and your efforts alone. According to this philosophy, there is no such thing as an advantaged or disadvantaged individual - there are only people getting exactly what they deserve. And if each person is solely responsible for his or her financial situation, if each person has exactly what he or she deserves, then the logical conclusion of such a philosophy should say:
"It is unfair to tax wealth, because it is punishing success. The wealthier a man is, the less should be demanded from him. He is wealthy as a result of his own hard work. He is the provider of the nation's jobs.
"It is fair and just to tax the middle class, because they depend on the wealthy for jobs and income. Since the purpose of government is to provide a safe environment for business, and therefore benefits the middle class, it is only right that the middle class should pay for it.
"It is unfair and unjust for government to legislate on the behalf of the poor at the expense of the wealthy. The poor are unproductive and useless. Poor women should be sterilized. Poor children should be taught to work. Welfare and similar programs should be abolished."
Those are the kinds of statements that should logically result from belief in the myth of the self-made man. And you know what? All of them, in one form or another, have been stated, and have been frequently repeated, in the past months and years. And, because millions of average hard-working middle class Americans have believed in the myth of the self-made man, they have let those statements go by largely unchallenged. Even worse, they have allowed far right politics and politicians (the champions of the myth) to determine the dangerous, destructive, and unjust policies that have dominated the United States for the past thirty-plus years, the very policies that have resulted in the economic disparity currently crippling our nation.
It's truly alarming the effects a myth, when touted as truth, can have on reality.
-Greg, December 2011