I consider Horatio Alger, and the other boy-who-makes-good characters like him, the most dangerous American myth around (I touched on this issue about two years ago, when pleading for my taxes to be raised).
As I wrote then, the "bootstraps myth" -- the idea that, by your own efforts alone, you can propel yourself from deepest poverty to greatest wealth -- is embedded in American psychology, and it's (a) a myth, and (b) a dangerous one. Why? Because no one makes it entirely on his or her own. There are scores of individuals who helped propel Young Mr. Alger onward, and there are institutions of law and government (not least, the very concept of "rule of law") that further paved the way for his success.
So I was cheered last September, when Elizabeth Warren, now the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, made a similar point, which promptly whizzed around the Internet (or at least, the progressive portions thereof). Speaking to a group of supporters (CBS News report by Lucy Madison, here), she said:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
I was cheered by her remarks (and even -- full disclosure -- sent a small check to support her candidacy; as a resident of CT, I can't vote for her ... although I briefly considered moving!), but didn't write a blog post about it, as this does not aim to be a political forum.
What prompts this post is a review by Sara Robinson in today's Salon (re-posted from AlterNet) of a new book by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed.
Miller is executive director of United for a Fair Economy, and Lapham is a director of UFE's Responsible Wealth project (which I mentioned in the April 2010 post). Together, Robinson reports, they "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 make a strong case that, as Warren said, "nobody ... got rich on his own." From interviews with a range of wealthy individuals, Miller and Lapham point to several key elements to "self-made" success, including:
- A good, and often public, high school and university education;
- The steady support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies;
- A strong regulatory environment;
- The Internet, created by government investment;
- A fair (and regulated!) marketplace to issue and trade stock;
- Enforceable copyright and trademark laws;
- The (relatively) robust network of roads, rails, and airports; and -- last but certainly not least --
- Luck and timing.