Conservative Reality and the Self-Made Man

| Staff Columnist

A week ago, in the opinion pages of Student Life, Daniel Fishman did what millions of Americans do every day: he completely misunderstood conservatism. I’d further postulate that he has an exceptionally dismal outlook on society as a whole. In his editorial, he put up the image of the isolationist “self-made man” as a conservative ideal that is inherently impossible. I will not spend time rehashing the comments left on his article but suffice it to say that his assertion that conservatism is people living in isolation and never interacting is ludicrous.

Conservatism is not the idea that people should live in their own one-man fiefdoms. Fishman’s assertion that conservatism advocates “removing the links” of the “modern world that connects us” is just plain wrong. The point of the self-made man is actually predicated upon the notion that institutional attempts to force everyone into identical circumstances for the sake of “equality” do more harm than good.

Clearly not everyone is created perfectly equal. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, it is a pretty universal truth that some people are, by cosmic crapshoot, born into better circumstances and others into less desirable circumstances. Here is where political views kick in. Liberal ideology, as stated by Fishman, would have you believe that “we need the government to empower these individuals.” I pose to Mr. Fishman this question: is your view of the typical man or woman so dismal that you believe they need a bunch of detached politicians to sort out their life, give them aid and tell them what to do?

Conservatism holds people in higher esteem. The self-made man is not the bubble-dweller Mr. Fishman proposes. In a free society, a person is able to achieve whatever opportunities they work for. People are not entitled to handouts from the government. Entire groups are not entitled to any particular special treatment. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” What does this mean? It means that all people are granted the right to make their own future without interference.

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I stated that via the aforementioned “cosmic crapshoot,” not everyone is made the same. However, contrary to Fishman and other liberal ideologues, this should not be an opportunity for the government to play Robin Hood. Tinkering with the status quo does not work. Attempting forced equality does not work. Whether it’s the miserable failure that was the Soviet Union in real life or the United States as depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story and socialist/egalitarian allegory “Harrison Bergeron,” governmental attempts to cram equality down everyone’s throats inevitably fail.

Being conservative means allowing people to find their own way in life. Inherent in conservatism is the belief that people are capable of making their own way up the ladder. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. Hard work is to be admired, and the further up someone climbs on his or her own accord, the more commendable their effort is. If one climbs from nothing to everything by their own hard work, are they to be robbed of their earnings by dozens of social welfare programs intended to better “equalize” the playing field?

Fishman claims that we need government to enable people. But how does government work to achieve this goal? Liberals would have you believe that the government should accomplish this by mowing over the top layer of society, cutting it back down to par so the smallest members of society will feel equal. You cannot grant the illusion of raising some people up without dragging others down. If the American Dream is to make a better life for yourself and your family through an honest dedication to hard work, then the American government has no place in obstructing those who accomplish that great feat.

I challenge Mr. Fishman to find me around campus and say with a straight face that he honestly believes it is the government’s duty to take one’s earnings and redistribute it to someone who did not earn it. In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “Government is not the solution…government is the problem.”

Richard is a junior in the Olin School of Business. He can be reached via e-mail at

  • Max Silverstein

    I am going to have to disagree with both Richard and Daniel here because the notion of the “self-made man” has utterly nothing to do with political theory.

    The self-made man is a fantasy that simultaneously invokes the beautiful promise of the American dream and validates our wealth and success (for those of us who have them).

    However, failure and success are never solely your fault. Life is not as simple as this fantasy of the self-made man would suggest.

    Conservatism, as I have come to understand it, is a philosophy which has two main tenants: 1) We cannot afford entitlement programs, no matter how wonderful they sound, and 2) The government cannot effectively provide social relief, no matter how much we would like it to.

    Everything else, from the staunch support of capitalism to demands for tax cuts can be derived from these two principles.

    Unfortunately, most Republican representatives could hardly be called conservatives by these standards. Republican elected officials are rewarded for bringing spending to their districts, states, etc, and while a couple of governors rejected parts of the stimulus bill last year, most are content to bring in as much funding to their states as they can possibly get (I’m looking at you Senator Shelby of Alabama).

    In the end, Republicans have forgone some of their conservative principles in favor of evangelical moralizing and fear mongering. Combine that with the Democratic party, who simply do not have the stones and brains to stick to the progressive principles that supposedly define the party, and it’s little wonder why nothing gets done in Washington.

    Maybe someday we will have enough high-information voters to get some decent candidates on the tickets. Until then, I’ll be watching The West Wing until I can convince myself that it is real.

  • Philip Christofanelli

    Five times seems fairly high, DAG. That would be a bit of overkill, considering how well you all display your ignorance and moral deficiencies without my help. I’d go for two, maybe three tops.

  • Anonymous

    “Tinkering with the status quo does not work. Attempting forced equality does not work. Whether it’s the miserable failure that was the Soviet Union in real life or the United States as depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story and socialist/egalitarian allegory “Harrison Bergeron,” governmental attempts to cram equality down everyone’s throats inevitably fail.”

    Outside of the fictional source and citation of the Soviet Union– which had many other goals and cultural structures in place besides equality for all (even if that was the surface presentation)–it seems this argument is rather weak.

    Quite simply,

    The Civil Rights Movement

    Perhaps it did not create perfect equality, but government action ultimately led to the framing of a society which was more conducive to an equitable understanding of everyone regardless of race.

  • Devil’s Advocate General

    Way to go, Mr. Markel. We all know that the best way to fight a straw man is with more straw.

    Of course, those of us who’ve watched the StudLife opinion page have seen this movie before. Expect weeks of columns from various submitters, each claiming, “No, ignore the previous author! Let me tell you the True Definition of Conservatism!” Many will follow in this piece’s footsteps and construct various collectivist bogeymen, though I’m not sure you can find serious political theorists who think conservatism and individualism (however you define that) have anything to do with each other. Certainly not outside of the narrow terms of twenty-first-century American political debate.

    In particular, I’m looking forward to the passive-aggressive name-calling that will no doubt make up the majority of Mr. Christofanelli’s response. In fact, anyone want to start a pool on how many times he smugly implies that liberals are stupid or morally deficient? Put me down for five.