The Self-Made Myth

Brian Miller & Mike Lapham
2011

With GOP delegates’ chants of “We built it!” — their Animal Farm response to a criticism of entrepreneurship that they know Barack Obama never made — still ringing in our ears, now seems a good time to re-feature an important little book that reminds us that no one makes it alone in a complex society.

In The Self-Made Myth, Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, the executive director of United for a Fair Economy and the project director of Responsible Wealth, respectively, make the case that no one succeeds alone.

As the U. S. presidential campaign drags on, we have all heard too many times how liberal policies threaten the entrepreneurs and industrial visionaries who created America and keep it strong — the self-made men.

Excessive taxation, intrusive regulation, and incessant government interference “punish success” and endanger the free market atmosphere without which prosperity weakens and opportunity disappears.

In The Self-Made Myth, Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, the executive director of United for a Fair Economy and the project director of Responsible Wealth, respectively, make the case that no one succeeds alone.

Even those relatively rare successes who have not benefitted from family wealth, superior educational opportunity, or just being in the right place at the right time owe a good part of their success to the political, economic, and physical infrastructures provided — often unseen — by governments and the social institutions they foster.

Too many books on economics and government policy are written for specialists. They are filled with arcane data and unfamiliar terminology. The Self-Made Myth purposefully avoids these limitations. Theirs is as wide an audience as they can reach, as evidenced by such tactics as providing free review copies to anyone who asks for one and encouraging book clubs and discussion groups to talk about and spread their ideas.

The book’s long title is The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. As this title makes clear, the authors have an economic and political message, and it’s a good one: Ayn Rand was wrong. Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy. The anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party and the libertarians is wrong.

In a complex society, no one does it alone. Miller and Lapham present their case in simple, but not simplistic, terms. They write with clarity and directness, making their points available to as many people as possible.

Thanks to the self-made myth, the authors write, a number of false and destructive attitudes infect political debate and public policy:

◾ Progressive taxes are viewed as “punishing success.”
◾  Efforts to secure fair wages are characterized as extortion from the captains of industry and finance, who supposedly created the wealth.
◾ Social safety nets are viewed as promoting laziness and sloth.

In place of the “self-made myth,” Miller and Latham offer the “built-together reality” — “the truth that individual and business success is built through individual effort but also through schools, roads, laws, and countless other taxpayer-supported institutions as well as luck, various head starts in life, and the contributions of others.”

If one accepts the built-together reality and the public investment imperative that flows from it, it follows that: ◾ Current inequalities of wealth cannot be justified by differing effort alone and should be reduced.
◾ Progressive taxes are viewed as “giving back” to support the nation that made that wealth possible.

◾ We need a robust government with the capacity to create the needed regulatory environment and make investments in our shared prosperity.

◾ Workers who help build the wealth should share in the prosperity through fair wages and a share of the wealth. ◾ Social safety nets provide an important floor and a much-needed leg up to enable more Americans to join in the building process.

To make their point, Miller and Latham document the success stories of prominent high-wealth individuals who acknowledge freely and with gratitude the contributions to their success made by others and by society as a whole. The authors make this point  convincingly, in different ways, again and again, but perhaps the clearest short statement of their core contention is expressed here:

The truth is that we have a robust economy precisely because we have an infrastructure that supports it. We have order and stability, a predictable system of rules for ownership and investing, and mechanisms to resolve disputes. Investors and entrepreneurs have confidence that the rules today will be the same next year and the year after. And we have a skilled workforce thanks to our nation’s substantial investment in public education. That is the essence of the built-together reality.

The Self-Made Myth is a deceptively simple but extremely important little book. In deflating the image of The Great American Entrepreneurial Hero, Miller and Lapham put in its place pride in the collective successes of all contributors to the economy.

And that kind of justified pride is too seldom noticed in a public arena dominated by the inflated bloviation — the “bloflation” — of the self-congratulatory, self-serving 1%.

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