The idea of the “self made man” is a common one in American culture. It’s the idea of someone (a man, typically) becoming successful simply through their own grit and hard work and natural ability. Though the phrase seems to be less common now than it was in my youth, you’ll still hear it, mostly from older folks or from those on the political right. The idea persists in the culture, however, and that’s a problem.
Because the self made man is a myth, and it always has been.
Where Does this Idea Come From?
This idea has been around since the early days of the United States. The phrase was coined in a speech by US Senator Henry Clay in 1832, but there are those who regard Benjamin Franklin as the first self made man. At that time, the concept of the self made man was a man who divested himself of possessions so that he may then go on to build his own fortune; in the 1950s, the success of the self made man was considered to be strictly success in business.
As the term has been used over and over again, it lost the divestiture meaning, and came to encapsulate anyone who had come up in business, the assumption being that the success this person (again, a man) enjoyed was the fruit of their own hard work, grit, and natural talents. These days there are those who would apply the self made man label even to those such as Donald J Trump, who has little experience at all with divestiture of wealth.
When the phrase was used by Clay in his speech in the Senate, it was in reference to leaders of manufacturing industry regarding tariffs that were being debated at the time, and this is a subject matter that causes people to invoke the self made man quite often: taxes. The idea that it is immoral to take money from those who have worked hard to earn it on their own, with no outside help, is used to inveigh against wealth taxes, business taxes, high marginal rates, and even estate taxes (the irony is palpable) here in the United States.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist, said in one of his lectures that there were…
no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist … Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered.Frederick Douglass
Success Comes From Community and Society.
The flaws with this view of success, particularly success in business, should be obvious immediately: nobody runs a wildly successful business on their own.
Even if you started the business on your own, with no business loans, no small business grants, no material inheritance at all from one’s family (even I got enough of my parents’ estate to buy a Playstation), business simply does not work that way. Especially in the context of post industrialization manufacturing business, while you may have worked to get the money to buy the plant and the equipment, your business requires the labor of employees.
This is vital. We often think about how much employees need their jobs (and we do) but we neglect how vital employees are to the businesses they work for. Tesla could not function without employees, and nor could Kellogg’s or GE. If they could, they would.
We’re nearing a point now in which business without labor may become a possibility, but even then we will have relied on the work and advancement of generations of scientists and engineers to make that possible. Scientific advancement in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence doesn’t just fall from trees.
In addition, all business require the support of society to succeed. This ranges from simple access to markets (markets are made of people, something we often also overlook; no business succeeds without customers) to basic infrastructure, from roads and utilities that are provided or regulated by society collectively, to high speed data connections, cloud storage, and other necessities of modern business.
Land and Labor.
So if we assume that, of the four factors of production, Capital and Entrepreneurship are both taken care of by our self made man alone (they weren’t, but let’s assume), Land and Labor are still unaccounted for. Land includes natural resources that become raw materials that finished goods are manufactured from.
Where do land and labor come from?
Here, in the US, they’re stolen.
Every business, every factory, every office in the United States stands on stolen land. Every natural resource we extract is extracted from stolen land. Resources once regarded as common pool resources, some non-excludable, are made excludable and captured for the pursuit of profit.
But even if that weren’t the case, even if we didn’t steal this entire country and engage in a (continuing) campaign of genocide against its original inhabitants, one could reasonably say that it’s impossible to extract an industrially significant quantity of a resource from a given parcel of land without it impacting neighboring parcels. One could say that the industrial processes necessary for industrial scale production cannot help but pollute land, air, and water that impact those on neighboring parcels. The land, at the risk of sounding a bit new-agey, is all connected; by plants, animals, water, and air. You cannot plunder land, even land you own, without impacting those around you, the society in which you operate.
But what about Labor?
Okay, it may be fair to have a conversation about whether or not labor is stolen in the current day (although it certainly isn’t traded on an open and fair market), but this nation from its very beginnings was built on stolen labor. And the early mercantile and agricultural success enjoyed by the fledgling US may never have been possible without it.
It’s worth noting that Henry Clay himself, who stood in defense of the self made men of manufacturing, was a slave owner. As was Benjamin Franklin.
So when you take advantage of US markets, of an economic system predicated on cheap (or stolen) labor, you’re benefiting from the legacy of slavery, even if you don’t currently own slaves yourself.
I’m not making a moral judgement on this. I’m just acknowledging this as fact. There’s no way that a business benefiting from our system does not in some way benefit from our past use of slavery.
Capital and Entrepreneurship.
The two remaining factors of production are capital and entrepreneurship. Capital refers to the machinery, tools, buildings, and other equipment needed to produce goods. Entrepreneurship is the spark that most people associate with the self made man; the grit, the willingness to work hard, and the intelligence that makes the self made man successful.
Capital does not spring fully formed from the hands of the entrepreneur. Though the self made man, without any material inheritance from his family, may have worked sufficiently to acquire the capital needed, there were employees that manufactured or built the capital. Inventors who created the machines. A society that has gone before that left fertile ground for the creation of this capital in its wake.
Surely entrepreneurship is the domain of the self made man, and his alone. Surely he is responsible for his intelligence and work.
Not so fast. Even with a lack of material inheritance from his family, the self made man benefits from the education he received throughout his life. He benefits from the cultural education that he received from his social standing (early examples of self made men were born to landed gentry almost exclusively, and were white, ensuring that they understood how to move in the world of moneyed whites. This persists today. I am a beneficiary of such cultural privilege). They benefit from not having to scrape a living from the unforgiving land with their crooked fingers, the benefit of which is the ability to think of things grander than one’s next meal.
These days, even those who have been educated only in private schools benefit from curriculum developed by the broader society (often in public schooling systems) and we all benefit from public schools as they produce workers of a sufficient education level to perform the work needed in our companies and factories. Public education also mitigates a wide range of societal ills, making a society that is more stable and more able to direct energy toward consumerism. A society that produces both workers and customers.
The Blindness of the Self Made Man.
I am floored whenever I hear someone talk about self made men in this day and age. The sheer blindness of it, to not be able to look behind you and see the hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of people who participated along the way. Schoolteachers and road builders, laborers and mentors.
It is a blindness that doesn’t see the connection that every business has to the land, to the communities that live on that land, to those that historically lived on that land. To the communities in which they do business, to the workers in those communities and to the customers that are the eventual end users where the chain of production terminates.
All of us are connected. All of us come from a place and a people, and we all carry the benefits and disadvantages that those origins provide.
This profound blindness impacts all of us, wherever we live, wherever we work.
Why it Matters.
Understanding where your business comes from and where it’s going confers a long term advantage. Understanding the community where your business comes from and in which it operates currently is incredibly valuable. But it matters on a much smaller scale than that.
Understanding the webs of, for lack of a better term, value, that connect us all gives one a unique view of the market, of strategy, and of marketing. It lets you see strengths and weaknesses that the blind self made man simply cannot see.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that, without significant material inheritance, what little success I’ve achieved has depended heavily on a complex web of relationships, without which I would be nothing at all.
Understanding that allows for further success, and gives you opportunities to help others succeed.