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Challenging the Self-Made Myth

Author doesn‘t understand her own words

Ms. vanden Heuvel said, “President Obama, too, picked up on this theme in his State of the Union address when he said, ‘No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.’ … Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says, ‘…Miller and Lapham clearly show that personal success is closely tied to the supports society provides.’ ”

Obama and Reich, they are both absolutely correct, and so is Ms. vanden Heuvel. Indeed, let us quote one of the founding fathers of America, discussing the nature of society, so that we can learn more about how everything we have is thanks to society:

“Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.”

That was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, one of the most important Revolutionary War tracts. So yes, President Obama is correct, that America is what it is because we worked together, and Reich is correct that we are indebted to society. But as Paine informs us, society is not government; society is something outside of government and foreign to it.

So if Obama and Reich understood their own words, they would realize that they are indicting government and celebrating the private free-market. If Obama and Reich would listen to their own words, they would say, with Henry David Thoreau (“Civil Disobedience”), “This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.”

That is not to say that the Republicans are any better than the Democrats in this regard. One need look only at the rampant crony capitalism espoused by the Republicans—witness Bush’s steel tariffs, and their orgy with the military-industrial complex—to realize that Republicans despise the free market as much as Democrats do. Republicans today are still following Abraham Lincoln, who in turn followed Henry Clay, who in turn followed Alexander Hamilton, the greatest enemy of capitalism America has ever seen (and the greatest advocate of crony capitalism), in contrast to Thomas Jefferson, capitalism’s greatest exponent (Jefferson even edited the English translation of the work of Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy, one of the greatest economists of the French liberal school). Nevertheless, the point is that if Ms. vanden Heuvel understood her own words, she would realize that she has refuted her own thesis about the value of government.

Michael Makovi

Jerusalem, ISRAEL

Mar 4 2012 - 1:54pm

This Week: The Folly of Austerity. PLUS: A New Nation Blog!

Not challenging

The illogical argument by Katrina vanden Heuvel was offensive. I think she believes her readers are dumb.

Firstly, she does no more than create a straw man. What conservative is out there arguing that we need no government? No one! The argument is that the government is trying to do to much and spend too much in the process. By proposing a straw man argument at the outset of her piece, she willfully neglects addressing what the conservative argument even is!

Secondly, the entire purpose of American government as originally intended by our founding fathers was to provide an ordered and secure society in which the individual could pursue his/her success. Why, now, would we pretend that those that have done so owe something more back beyond what anyone at all in society owes? Particularly when only 50.5 percent of Americans so much as pay federal income taxes? Really, those of us that are successful owe more back to government to support those that not only have not taken advantage of the ordered and secure society government provides… but, don’t even so much as pay into it? Really?

Thirdly, the author and her references leave out an incredibly important part of the self-made success story. She references hard work and gumption being mythical in the attainment of success. Well, again… a strawman is constructed. She argues against hard work and gumption’ being the reason for success. Of course, it takes more than hard work and gumption to be successful. Again, who exactly is she debating on this? She pretends that conservatives say hard work and gumption is all you need. But again, that just isn’t true. She forgets about intelligence and education. You can work as hard as you want, but if you don’t work smart you won’t get the success you hope for.

I’m sorry. But this piece is really a disappointment. It’s a full-on strawman argument, presenting points that are not fully developed, arguing against supposedly conservative talking points that conservatives don’t even support.

Of course we can’t be successful in a disordered, unsecure society. No kidding!

I will ask this of the author: If successful people are successful only because of government and not due to effort or intellect of their own. Then, how do you explain those that aren’t successful?

Yea, I thought so.

Poor piece. Intellectually empty.

James Conner

Houston, TX

Mar 3 2012 - 1:34pm