The Self-Made Myth Haunts America and Is Contributing to Our Demise

Last updated on July 17th, 2023 at 06:03 pm

The election season has put the belief in the “self-made man” into the spotlight. President Obama has rightfully pointed out that no one succeeds in a vacuum. Everyone depends on those around them including the public (as represented by the government) to build and maintain the infrastructure that keeps our system working. Employers don’t have to pay out of pocket to provide their employees with the ability to read and write; public education does that. When their goods are shipped over our roads and bridges and their customers use them to get to their businesses, they don’t have to build those. No matter how much Romney and the Republicans take him out of context, when Obama referred to, “You didn’t build that,” the infrastructure to which he referred is the backbone of American industry.

One group in particular has been doing an exceptionally good job challenging the notion of the “self-made man.” This year, United for a Fair Economy has published a book, “The Self-Made Myth and the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses to Succeed,” by Miller and Lapham and a report called, “Born on Third Base: What the Forbes 400 Really Says about Economic Equality & Opportunity in America.” Both the book and the report make it clear that Americans have been perpetrating the myth of the self-made man for far too long.

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According to Miller and Lapham,

“The self-made myth is the assertion that individual and business success is the result of personal characteristics of exceptional individuals, such as hard word, creativity, sacrifice, with little or no outside assistance. Those who subscribe to this myth do so only by ignoring the contributions of society, the supports made possible through governmental action, any head start a person may have received, and just plain old luck.”

This myth is chronically used in anti-government arguments by people who argue that government is an impediment to the entrepreneurship of extraordinary individuals and that progressive taxation “punishes success.” It exalts “job creators” while putting down everyone else who works “at their mercy.” Instead of acknowledging that all business is built on the efforts of the whole workforce, a workforce that turns around and creates jobs by exercising their purchasing power, only those at the top of the hierarchy are esteemed. It drowns out that reality that societies and their businesses are “built together” and require public investment.

In their “Born on Third Base” report (.pdf), the authors investigated the influences on the Forbes 400. What they find is quite telling about the self-made myth. Only 35% of the people on the list can be said to come from the lower or middle class, receiving relatively little family assistance in their success. Just over 40% inherited more than a million dollars or received significant start-up capital from family to start their business. Seventeen percent of the members of the Forbes 400 also have a family member among the 400. The remaining 22% were upper middle class, inherited money (less than a million) and/or received some start-up capital from family. Apparently, to be a “self-made” Forbes 400 member, you must also be a white male, because only 40 are women and 16 of the people on this list are not white. Stunningly, 90% of the women on the list inherited their wealth, so they really are not “self-made.” Despite these facts, Forbes claims that 78% of its list members are “self-made.” They obviously have absolutely no concept of class, race, or gender privilege, let alone an ability to account for inheritance or family assistance with business start-up costs.

Other than inheriting money, which the first most common way of getting onto the Forbes 400 list, the second most common was accumulating wealth from capital gains. So, in reality, these individuals didn’t work their way to the top. They sat back and watched money accumulate while other people worked and produced so that they could collect the profits. Naturally, their tax rate on this income is far lower than those silly people who were toiling for their pay. Given that the Forbes 400 has more wealth than the bottom 50-60% of Americans, perhaps they would be willing to chip in a little more toward the country’s infrastructure that helped get them their riches? Don’t bet on it. Salon did a survey of the 400 billionaires that top Forbe’s list, and found that a mere 2% of them were willing to pay more in taxes.

All of this belief in the self-made man, particularly perpetrated during the past 40 years has led to an era characterized by modern conservative ideology and policy making, complete with low taxes for the wealthy, reduced public investment in everything from education to infrastructure, and pro-corporate, anti-regulation policies. Yet, these policies have actually made the environment for entrepreneurship less successful. According to a new report by the New America Foundation, entrepreneurship has been in decline since 1977, and there has been a drop of 53% in the per capita number of entrepreneurs.

The sad reality about modern American life is that upward mobility has become increasingly difficult to achieve in the United States. Remarkably, it is more uncommon here than in the traditionally more class-rigid Europe. Research has shown that parental wealth is the greatest predictor of a child’s adult economic status. As Everclear sang in their song, “What It’s Like,” “You know where it ends… it usually depends on where you start.”

Moving from the super rich to the general population, there are all of the people who feel they “go it alone,” when in fact they have benefited extensively from government programs. A study by Cornell University professor, Suzanne Mettler, found that 53% of people who had received a student loan claimed to have never used a government program. Between 40 and 44% of those who have received Social Security, Pell Grants, unemployment benefits, Veteran’s benefits, the GI bill, or Medicare claimed they had never used a government social program. It brings to mind the incredible ignorance of actor Craig T. Nelson who said on Fox News, “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Did anybody help me out? No.”

Miller and Lapham counter the self-made myth with what they call the “built-together reality.” Using numerous examples of wealthy titans who made large sums of their fortune from government largesse, including Donald Trump and the Koch brothers, these authors are able to demonstrate that we are all interdependent with the rich relying as much or more on public investments.

As Miller and Lapham argue, we have got to change the narrative about self-made myths versus built-together realities, so people begin to support social policies that encourage public investment and greater equality of opportunity. Our social policies need to reflect the reality of our interdependence and the actual pathways to success in the United States, and the only way to achieve this goal is to start getting the American public to separate myth from reality.

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