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]

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe