The great conservative myth: The self-made man

| Staff Columnist

The myth of a self-made man, an individual who rises to great success purely from his own talents, wrongly remains the center of the ideologies of various conservative movements. At this past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, this myth took a prominent role in the right’s criticism of the current government. The yearly meeting of the conservative movement to listen to leaders in the conservative community, from big-name conservative politicians to authors and media personalities, closed with a keynote address by Tea Party activist and Fox News character Glenn Beck. He handed out bipartisan criticism for government spending beyond what he believes is the only role of the United States government: to “save us from bad guys.” In his keynote speech, he asked, “When did it become something of shame or ridicule to be a self-made man?” Mr. Beck seems to claim that the government makes it impossible to be a self-made man because it taxes and regulates these businessmen; but the modern interconnected world makes the self-made man concept obsolete.

In the modern world, where everyone is connected to each other, being entirely self-dependent cannot be the road to success. We must be able to depend on each other to be successful both as individuals and as a society. Mr. Beck points to small business owners as examples of self-made men, but without the various other players in the business world, like suppliers and distributors, these small businesses would fail. He often cites himself as an example of a self-made man, as an individual who had little formal education and struggled with alcoholism, but has turned his life around, now owns his own company and is a successful media personality. Yet if someone does the painful deed of listening to Mr. Beck for extended periods of time, he will contradict himself and talk about the help he got while turning his life around. From other members in Alcoholics Anonymous to the free library books he got (from the government, gasp!), Mr. Beck got a great deal of help while turning his life around.

Many point to the great inventors throughout history, like Henry Ford, as examples of self-made men being wildly successful without others’ help. While it is true that many rise from humble beginning, they need help from others to rise to the top. Ford was a great innovator, but he needed outside investments to allow him to create Ford. He even benefited greatly, both directly and indirectly, from the federal government. He was awarded 161 patents that allowed him to profit from his inventions, and transportation investments from various levels of government to build roads and highways throughout America helped fuel demand for his cars for decades.

This myth is popular with conservatives for many reasons. Many point to the great Republican president Abraham Lincoln as a self-made man because he rose to the presidency despite being mostly self-educated, but he received ample help from supporters inside his party to earn him the party nomination. Small-government conservatives like the concept because it fits nicely with their narrative. A country where any individual can flourish without any outside help requires no government spending on medicine for the poor and elderly. No need for public education; they can educate themselves like Lincoln did. No need for scientific research grants; if the free market wanted a cure for polio so badly, it could fund the needed research.

Unfortunately for supporters of this belief, the modern world connects us. Removing these links would set society back rather than help us. At the same time, it does not mean that talented people who lack resources cannot work hard and succeed; it just means we need the government to empower these individuals. We need roads to connect us and to transport our products. We need scientific research to come up with vaccines to prevent epidemics. We need student loans to help the next generation’s best and brightest maximize their potential. Governmental steps like these may not be consistent with Mr. Beck’s ideology, but they are consistent with his path to success.

Daniel is a junior in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail [email protected]

  • Mitchell

    All great self made men only achieve greatness by interacting with other great self made men, no shit. The idea is aggregate individual liberty to freely accept or decline such interactions based upon the merits of those involved, not aggregate shackling to one another by force. I believe policies are directed toward the latter these days.

  • Small Business Owner

    Neither Silverstein nor Fishman are entrepreneurs I bet. So, until you can tell me whether or not it’s possible through true experience, shut up. Seriously, your liberal diatribes are annoying since you, at least Fishman, have never started a company and have no clue as to how much it takes from yourself and others to do it. When starting my own company I received assistance from a friend, a relative, and a supplier, that’s all. None of them have been “empowered by the government.”

  • Max Silverstein

    This column seems to have begun with an interesting premise: examine Glenn Beck’s argument made during his keynote CPAC. Unfortunately, by the time Mr. Fishman claims that, “… we need the government to empower these individuals,” that premise has gone off the rails.

    As I said in response to Mr. Markel’s argument during his most recent editorial, the whole self-made man concept has nothing to do with political philosophy. Yes, successful people tend to be extraordinarily resourceful, especial when their initial resources are limited. Yes, those same people have also gotten help, be it lucky breaks or a friend’s financial support.

    Conversely, those who fail tend to screw up their lives all on their own. They also have had bad things happen to them. Sometimes it is bad luck, and sometimes bad people take things from them.

    The self-made man fantasy is something that appeals to the American spirit while simultaneously providing moral gratification to those who have a better lot in life (Mr. Christofanelli’s comment is particularly indicative of this).

    Ultimately, this is why the article is so disappointing: it fails to call Glenn Beck out on his shenanigans. This man is espousing the notion of self-made man to the point of delusion. The fact that he cites public libraries as a changing point mere breaths away from denouncing the government as a socialist monstrosity should speak for itself.

    Glenn Beck is a showman. His chalkboard rants only have a semblance of coherence or content to them. But he is effective at one thing: he riles people up. He invokes fear, anger, love of country, fear, outrage, confusion, fear, and fear, often in the same show segment. He is a rabble-rouser.

    The Tea Party movement that Beck founded is neither democracy nor populism. It is not a grass roots movement. It is an angry scared mob. In a time of uncertainty and frustration, Beck has turned reasonable concerns into a call for revolution. In demonizing the government and opposing ideology, he has become a source of disinformation and discord.

  • Philip Christofanelli

    Well said, Caitlin. I think the author is well aware that he is being intellectually dishonest in his portrayal of conservative ideology. Perhaps the opportunity to pick on Glenn Beck, a most challenging intellectual feat, was too hard to pass up.

    Fishman’s view of individuals as collective units is rather frightening. I’m fairly certain that sort of ideology led to the murder of over 200 million people in the 20th century at the hands of socialist governments. It’s all in the public good you know?

    Is it possible that Fishman is feeling a tinge of jealousy? Perhaps he benefits in some way from the public trough and has an inner psychological drive to rip down all those who live as an end unto themselves? I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • Caitlin

    This entire column relies upon a straw man argument. You conflate the idea of “help” as a charitable action and “help” as a voluntary exchange between parties that helps both (which is the definition of voluntary trade… Adam Smith’s example was that the butcher does not sell his customer meat out of benevolence–nor does the customer buy it out of charity– but because both benefit.)

    A self-made man is not someone who has never interacted with another person; that’s a very silly argument to make, and one that no one would argue. A self-made man is someone who achieves his or her success without having to be “helped” by simply governmental or charitable action.

    The suppliers may “help” a small businessman… but at their own profit. They “help” him because it helps them. Voluntary trade is a net gain for both parties. While many people have help from other sources (family members, benevolent wealthy patrons) the idea of the self-made man still exists. There are plenty of examples of that (think of Rex Sinquefield, the St. Louis millionaire who came from very humble origins to earn a fortune off his own ingenuity and intelligence.) Help of the government is not a necessary nor even necessarily a desired provision– the government cannot help everyone (nor will it help everyone equally) and it instead chooses winners and losers based not on the persons merit within a market (as the free market rewards ingenuity) but by political influence. Without undue barriers to entry (mostly imposed by the government), any person can become a “self-made man.”

    I’d hope for higher quality arguments from Studlife in the future. While it’s lovely and very flashy for you to entitle your article “the great conservative myth,” the only thing you have proved is that you do not understand the terminology.