It Takes A Village To Make A Self-Made Man

by Billy Buntin posted 7/26/2012 6:56:42 PM
We live in an interconnected world. Recent technological advances have made it even more so. Each of us in the United States lives in a country, state and community comprised of people working, living and playing together. Ours is a complex web of individuals and groups who, in concert, create a functioning and sustaining society. We all use and benefit from products made by other people, we eat food that was planted, grown and shipped by others. We commute to work each day on roads or public transportation that were made and are maintained by fellow residents that we may never know personally. To put it plainly, no one is an island and no single person can survive without the support of several, if not hundreds and thousands, of their fellow humans.

“So how, in this highly interconnected, collective and cooperative world, can anyone claim to be a ‘self-made individual’?”

The “
self-made man” concept goes as far back as this nation’s founding. It is rooted in the notion of the “rugged individual” and is an archetypical figure towards which we should all aspire. The self made man comes from low origins but against all odds, breaks out of his inherited social position, climbs up the social ladder and creates a new, better identity for himself. Hard work, drive, self-control and willpower are central to the self-made myth; his own effort, not external help or special relationships, makes the crucial difference in the self-made man’s rise. The classic rags to riches story lends support to the myth of “American Exceptionalism”; which contends that the United States and its citizens are unique and exceptionally endowed with, among other things, favorable moral values and an inclination toward hard work. “The self-made man” is as American as apple pie.

selfmadeBenjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ford top a long list of popular American examples of self-made men. It is no coincidence that these examples are mostly of white men who were uniquely positioned, due to their race and gender, to reap the benefits of a new and growing nation. Despite it’s flawed logic, contemporary standout examples like President Barack Obama and Steve Jobs (former Apple CEO) serve to bolster and strengthen the idea that hard work and individual effort play the largest role in American success stories.

Sociological studies paint a different picture, however. According to a 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development , the U.S. ranks well below Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in terms of how freely citizens move up or down the social ladder. Social mobility has dwindled considerably in the US as compared to decades ago. Have our exceptional values migrated from the United States to other parts of the world in the last few decades? Of course they haven’t.

Dwindling social mobility in the US today does not disprove the existence of self-made men, however it does demonstrate that external factors are at play in determining the success of any person or persons. Americans today are no less intelligent or hard working, but they exist in a context of a recession economy, globalized labor competition, and poor state investment in education and other areas … leading to fewer economic opportunities and diminished social mobility for American citizens. Even the most exceptional among us struggle to adjust under these conditions.

The self-made man notion is further hampered by the obvious fact that success in any field just isn’t possible alone; rather it is dependent on support and collaboration from others. These can be partners, employees, conscious collaborators or a strong and stable infrastructure to work and grow in. Economists like Ha Joon Chang have long observed that while the energy for hard work and innovation is a universal human trait, transformative financial success is often dependent on social and political institutions that support growth and channel this energy toward fair and voluntary exchange. The success of Henry Ford is a classic example. Recognized for his revolutionary production line innovations (interchangeable parts), the Ford success can also be attributed to low wage factory workers and a public led commitment to building good standard roads and highways starting in the mid-late 1920s. The combination of a cheaper production model and pervasive reliable roads meant great success for the Ford Motor Company and the country. Roads and highways led to the growth of suburbs, which led to the necessity of gas stations and several other automobile related industries. Private industry was in fact propped up and supported by a public collective effort.

So look, “self-made man”, there’s nothing wrong with receiving help on the way to success, just give a little recognition to the rest of us when it’s due.
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