Good Reads

On ‘Making It’ Alone and ‘Punishing Success’

A timely demolition of the claim that the rich owe their fortunes to their individual pluck and performance.

By Sam Pizzigati

Brian Miller and Like Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. Berrett-Koehler, 2012, 196 pp.

Self-Made Myth cover

Banker John Allison, the former chair of BB&T, will gladly arrange to have your local school get a grant worth up to $2 million. The catch? Your local school will have to agree to offer a course that makes Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, required reading.

Rand has become the American right wing’s patron saint. Her basic theme: that all progress comes from heroic entrepreneurs whose innate daring and drive will always work wonders — unless those nasty creeps from the government get in the way.

Variations on this theme have been floating around U.S. politics for generations. For veteran activists Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, these variations amount to what they call the “self-made myth,” the notion that individual and business success results entirely from the “hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of one individual with little outside assistance.”

This self-made myth tends to loom largest whenever income and wealth start concentrating in the hands of a precious few. The original Horatio Alger stories flourished in the staggeringly unequal post-Civil War Gilded Age. In today’s new Gilded Age, Ayn Rand’s books are breaking sales records.

No coincidence here. The self-made myth serves to legitimize grand fortunes. If wealth derives solely from individual spirit and spunk, then any subsequent concentration of income and wealth must rate as absolutely moral and just. And any attempt to limit this concentration “punishes success.”

In their timely new book, The Self-Made Myth, Brian Miller and Mike Lapham attack this noxious notion from an unexpected direction. They let the “successful” expose the emptiness of “punishing success” claims. They give voice to an assortment of men and women of means who understand that no individuals ever succeed solely — or even mostly — on their own.

Brian Miller and Mike Lapham give voice to men and women of means who understand that no individuals ever succeed solely — or even mostly — on their own.

Some of these thoughtful successful will be familiar to almost everyone in America today: billionaire investor Warren Buffett, for instance, and Ben Cohen, the ice cream magnate of Ben and Jerry’s fame.

But most of the successful Miller and Lapham introduce have made their millions outside the public spotlight. A software entrepreneur who sold his successful start-up to Intel for $884 million. A language-learning impresario who built a $30 million business. The co-founder of the nation’s third-largest craft brewery.

The Self-Made Myth lets all these talented individuals share the backstory to their success. And in that backstory these talented give full credit to all the people and public institutions that enabled the success they’ve achieved.

Among these enablers: The public schools and colleges these successful attended. The public roads they use to ship their goods. The publicly initiated Internet that speeds their outreach. The patent and copyright laws that protect their intellectual property. The government regulations and court systems that bring order to the marketplace and confidence to investors and customers.

The successful Miller and Lapham profile in The Self-Made Myth certainly do take pride in their personal hard work. But they recognize the help they’ve received — and recognize, as well, that not all who work hard see rewards for their labor.

“Race, class, gender, birthright, and other factors,” as Miller and Lapham put it, “still weigh heavily on one’s prospects in life.”

Sign up for To MuchGiven all this — what Miller and Lapham dub the “built-together reality” — any society that asks the rich to give back, that taxes progressively, is not “punishing success.” It’s raising the wherewithal to broaden opportunities for success.

The thoughtful successful who speak to us in The Self-Made Myth all agree totally on this score. After reading their stories, you will, too.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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