The Illusory Self-Made Man

It always irritates me to see the Michael Eisners and Ken Lays and George W. Bushes portray themselves as “self-made men” – Ayn Rand superheroes of the capitalist order. Individual initiative matters in creating wealth, of course, but some of the most critical ingredients are social investments – schools, colleges, government R&D, small business assistance, the courts, the stock market, regulatory agencies, and much more. These are precisely the factors that the “I did it all myself” storyline denies. Moguls claim all responsibility for their success while denigrating government taxation as a form of theft and social spending as waste.

How gratifying, then, to come across a report that tackles the bogus, self-congratulatory myth of the self-made man. “ I Didn’t Do It Alone: Society’s Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success,” takes on the “great man theory of wealth creation” by letting more than a dozen entrepreneurs, CEOs and investors confess that their personal talent was only partly responsible, and that it takes a village to make a millionaire. The August 2004 report is by Chuck Collins, Mike Lapham and Scott Klinger of Responsible Wealth, a project of the Boston-based group United for a Fair Economy.

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Collins gained some renown a few years ago by working with Bill Gates, Sr., to fight the Bush Administration’s proposal to abolish inheritance taxes. Collins writes here: “Taxes are portrayed as onerous, unfair redistribution of privately created wealth – not as reinvestment or giving back to society. Yet, where would many wealthy entrepreneurs be today without taxpayer investment in the Internet, transportation, public education, legal system, the human genome and so on?”

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is particularly refreshing: “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling 30 years later.”

Martin Rothenberg, an entrepreneur who founded Syracuse Language Systems and Glottal Enterprises, acknowledges the public investment that made his wealth possible:

bq.My wealth is not only a product of my own hard work. It also resulted from a strong economy and lots of public investment, both in others and in me. I received a good public school education and used free libraries and museums paid for by others. I went to college under the GI Bill. I went to graduate school to study computers and language on a complete government scholarship… While teaching at Syracuse University for 25 years, my research was supported by numerous government grants… My university research provided the basis for Syracuse Language Systems…

One section of the report profiles wealthy individuals who can’t admit that they’ve benefited from society’s investments in them. Phil Gramm, as a U.S. Senator, aggressively cut taxes for the rich and spending for public infrastructure and education. You would never guess that his very career was subsidized by taxpayers, who paid for his education at the University of Georgia, under the War Orphans Act, and for his economics graduate degree, under the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act.

After surveying the self-delusions of self-made men (and they are mostly men), the authors of “I Didn’t Do It Alone” call for “a new narrative of American success.” I think it might have something to do with the commons.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.