Challenging the ‘Self-Made’ Myth

Challenging the ‘Self-Made’ Myth

No one who has succeeded in America actually did it on his or her own.


Understanding that government has always been fundamental to the success of individuals, businesses and communities is becoming a key issue in the 2012 election. No one has homed in on the need to reset the narrative on government more effectively than Elizabeth Warren, who powerfully laid out her argument in a gritty video clip that went viral: “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.” President Obama, too, picked up on this theme in his State of the Union address when he emphasized that “No one built this country on their own.”

These ideas are reflected in a new book, The Self-Made Myth, by United for a Fair Economy’s Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A central thesis is that the greater an individual’s success, the greater his or her dependence on public infrastructure, public investment in research and innovation, and regulations and fair rules—all of which the business leaders profiled in the book cite as essential to their accomplishments. Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewing, talks about the roads carrying Fat Tire beer around the nation. Glynn Lloyd of City Fresh Foods and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream discuss the confidence provided by food safety regulations. Thelma Kidd, co-founder of David-Kidd Booksellers in Tennessee, cites the importance of a Small Business Administration loan in helping her break through the glass ceiling. The book also debunks the tiresome claims by the likes of Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch brothers that “self-made” means supporting a you’re-on-your-own kind of politics and economy.

The 1 percenters profiled in this book are ready to stand with the 99 percent, and they aren’t alone. Co-author Lapham is co-founder of Responsible Wealth, a network of more than 700 business leaders and wealthy people who push for progressive taxation. There are also thousands of “high-road” businesses represented by the American Sustainable Business Council, devoted to a “vibrant, just and sustainable economy.” More than fifty local Chambers of Commerce have denounced or canceled memberships in the US Chamber because its hyper-corporatized ways do not represent the values of small businesses and entrepreneurs who are connected and committed to their communities. All of this means there’s a real and growing potential for new alliances between progressives and businesspeople who recognize that we are all in this together.

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