The self-made man myth
April 28, 2012 4 Comments
I’ve no doubt that hard work, wits, etc., help one be successful in life. I equally have no doubt that luck, timing, and help from others are very important as well. I would argue that one key difference between liberals and conservatives is that while liberals do not deny the former assertion conservatives all to often deny the latter assertion. Apparently, there’s a new book that comprehensively takes on the self-made man myth (though, I think Gladwell’s Outliers– which this story implicitly references– already made that case quite well). The whole thing is a succinct summary and well-worth reading it its entirety. That said, a few key points. First, the more self-reflective successful individuals they interviewed consistently tied their success to government investment in public education, support for small business, a regulatory environment that allows entrepreneurship to thrive, and others. And there’s the luck:
We all know wealth isn’t just a matter of hard work, brains or talent. Most of us probably know 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 essential 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 in 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.
Anyway, read the whole thing.