Self-Made in America

Self-reliance is a good thing—but its fetishization has created an elite oblivious to the role luck and privilege play in people’s lives.

By Elbert Ventura

Tagged Libertarianism

The conservative gospel of success rests on an unexamined paradox. The right’s last standard-bearer articulated it well—albeit inadvertently—in the last election.

At that infamous fundraiser in Palm Beach, the one that would eventually be seen by the world and derail his campaign, Mitt Romney actually said quite a few things before he got to the bit about the 47 percent. He recounted a visit years earlier to a factory in China when he was still at Bain. The pay for the workers was poor, the conditions at the plant deplorable. And yet, Romney said, the company had to fend off desperate job seekers lined up outside its gates. “And so, as we were experiencing this for the first time,” Romney told the audience, “for me to see a factory like this in China some years ago, the Bain partner I was with turned to me and said, ‘You know, 95 percent of life is settled if you’re born in America.’ ”

So it was that the Republican nominee betrayed recognition of a fundamental fact: that the accident of birth determines so much of an individual’s fate. And yet this was not the philosophical breakthrough it seemed. His story came at the tail end of a rumination about his background and inheritance: “I was born with a silver spoon,” he conceded. But it’s not the spoon you thought. He was born with “the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America.” What about that other great gift, the good fortune to be born into the American ruling class? “Both my dad and Ann’s dad did quite well in their life, but when they…passed along inheritances to Ann and to me, we both decided to give it all away,” he remarked. “So, I had inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that’s by hard work.”

The preposterousness of the statement has already been established in the court of public opinion. (Who could forget Ann Romney’s wistful story about the “not easy years” they endured, when they had to sell stock given to Mitt by his father to keep the couple afloat through school?) What we didn’t fixate on enough at the time was the defensiveness of a very rich man who insists that his success was purely self-made. It’s almost as if hard work and good fortune were mutually exclusive, and to admit to the latter is to negate the former.

That Romney could make these claims about luck and just deserts suggests a moral obliviousness. But it’s an obliviousness that isn’t his alone. The narrative of American prosperity, as filtered through the prism of post-Reagan conservatism, is animated by two ideas in tension. We Americans are so lucky, the right exclaims, to be in the greatest country on Earth. And yet conservatives chafe at any suggestion that luck and circumstance have anything to do with how we fare in life—that the individual is not the sole author of her destiny.

That disposition partly explains the vehemence of the conservative rage against Barack Obama. Himself a product of the meritocracy, Obama has shown that he grasps how factors beyond merit can shape the course of lives. He was, as he himself admits, an early beneficiary of connections: Young Barack won admission to prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii thanks to “the intervention of Gramps’s boss, who was an alumnus,” he recounts in Dreams from My Father. (Obama adds wryly, “[M]y first experience with affirmative action, it seems, had little to do with race”—a sly reminder that legacies and the connected are the frequent, and frequently unacknowledged, beneficiaries of side-door admissions.)

For Obama, the promise of America was that the accident of birth was not determinative. His biography was the vessel for the idea: “For a young man like me, of mixed race, without any firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father’s steadying hand, it is this essential American idea—that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will—that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans.”

But that ideal has been tested these last few decades as the gap between productivity and income has widened—and more so in the post-recession years, as the 1 percent has claimed most of the gains from the recovery. In an interview with David Remnick, Obama weaved this fundamental insight into his economic analysis: “I’d like to give voice to an impression I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck—that the ground is less secure under your feet.” (How those words—“born with huge advantages,” “extraordinary luck”—must rankle conservatives.)

Obama went beyond birth and luck. He made clear that he believed an individual’s success is a product of something bigger: a community, a society, even. “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own,” he thundered at a 2012 campaign stop. Those remarks built up to that inelegant, improvised formulation: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that”—mangled phrasing so blunt that the pricked Republican id couldn’t help but make it the centerpiece of the party’s convention.

Obama’s speech, which invoked the roads, bridges, teachers, and the “American system” that we all paid for, was actually a lame attempt to restate a more definitive expression from a year earlier. In the fall of 2011, Elizabeth Warren, speaking to a roomful of supporters in Massachusetts, let loose a stem-winder that quickly went viral: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces the rest of us paid for.”

Warren’s tirade struck a chord among liberals. And as a spontaneous précis of progressive economic assumptions and the common good, it’s hard to imagine something better. But Warren’s analysis is limited to the transactional. It doesn’t range far enough. She is speaking to us as taxpayers, and to the wealthy businessman as a beneficiary of public goods.

What we need is a language that goes beyond the merely economic and into the moral. There is something deeply wrong with a culture in which someone like Romney can say with a straight face that he has earned, with no help, everything he has achieved—and be drowned in applause by a crowd of presumably sentient beings for saying it. The capacity to be humble in the face of success, and grateful in the face of privilege, is what we are missing. Such an ethic is a prerequisite to building a good society.

Our hang-up over self-reliance has only deepened in the wake of the Tea Party. You see it in today’s efflorescence of libertarianism. In the South, a libertarian pizza deliveryman threatens the GOP’s claim to the North Carolina Senate seat with a third-party run. In Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, a self-satisfied “masters of the universe” ethos reigns among our techno-utopian overlords. In the East, the Free State Project—a campaign to recruit 20,000 libertarians to migrate to New Hampshire, in the hopes of shifting politics in the low-population state—is gathering steam.

These are but a few signs of what intellectual historian Mark Lilla has called “our libertarian age.” The “sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, the distrust of public authority, [and] tolerance” are the hallmarks of our time. And, Lilla adds, “It has given birth to a new kind of hubris.” Not the hubris of the totalizing ideologies of the past, for libertarian dogma doesn’t seek to explain the world. Our libertarian age has “no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going”—all that matters is that the individual be left alone.

It’s a hubris that leads to grandiose Randian (Randiose?) fantasies of self-sufficiency and triumph. Everyone imagines himself to be a Horatio Alger hero of the new economy, climbing higher up society’s ladder on merit alone. Another Romney, Tagg, comes to mind: When asked about the investment firm he started, he insisted, “No one we went to as an investor said, ‘Oh, your dad is Mitt Romney, I’m going to give you $10 million.’” As Salon’s Alex Pareene wrote recently in a caustic essay, “Our glorious golden era of nepotism”: “Most of our second- (or third-) generation success stories refuse to allow themselves to believe that they haven’t earned everything they’ve got.” A society of meritocrats continues to insist that it is paving the road that it also happens to be strutting on.

It has been especially toxic for our politics. The concomitant of self-satisfaction over one’s own achievements is smugness about others’ failures. A recent Pew survey found that a large majority of conservatives believe that the poor are poor because of “lack of effort on his or her part.” (That contrasts with liberals, who acknowledged that “circumstances beyond his or her control” were to blame.) That’s the upshot of the “silver spoon” line: If being born in America is the greatest silver spoon of all, then all native-born Americans are blessed equally. Mitt Romney happened to take that gift and multiply it many times over with hard work and determination. We all had the same shot he did; if you’re not rich, it must be because you squandered the gift.

In 2010, 18-year-old Justin Hudson gave the commencement address at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, one of the best public high schools in the country, and one that determines admission based on an entrance examination. The selective school sends more of its grads to the nation’s top colleges than almost any other public institution—in other words, it is a breeding ground for America’s elite.

But Hudson wasn’t in a celebratory mood. “More than happiness, relief, fear, or sadness,” he said, “I feel guilty.”

I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were 11-year-olds, or four-year-olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as “gifted,” while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance.

As Chris Hayes recounts in his 2012 Twilight of the Elites, the senior was speaking at a school (Hayes’s alma mater) that seemed to be complicit in using the veneer of meritocracy to promote inequality. In 1995, 12 percent of the entering seventh-grade class at Hunter was black and 6 percent was Hispanic. By 2010, those numbers had fallen to 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively. There are several possible reasons for this development, but one that leaps out is that in the interim, a “test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam” had sprung up. Families pay thousands of dollars for multiweek prep courses, and $90 an hour for private tutors. The kids who pass the test are no doubt smart, hard-working students. But those qualities no longer seem to be the only determinants of admission.

Hunter’s story is the story of America’s widening inequality writ small. As President Obama suggested, more and more people can intuit that the game is rigged—that exhortations to “work hard and play by the rules” are nothing more than platitudes in an economy where being born to the right parents, in the right class, in the right school district, among other circumstances, seem to matter just as much as talent and initiative. You can see signs of that growing awareness. In the Pew survey mentioned above, a majority of conservatives may have blamed the poor for their fate, but 50 percent of all respondents named “circumstances beyond one’s control” as the culprit. Meanwhile, NBC News/The Wall Street Journal this summer came out with its own survey asking Americans who was to blame for poverty. Asked that question in 1995, 60 percent of Americans said poverty was caused by “people not doing enough” for themselves; two decades later, that was down to 44 percent, while those saying that “circumstances beyond people’s control” were to blame went up to 46 percent, from 30 percent in 1995.

And yet the inflated self-regard of our elites remains unpunctured. What if they were more like Hudson? What if the 1 percent and the quintile or two just below them were more mindful of luck, privilege, and pedigree? The point isn’t to paralyze them with guilt. Hudson shouldn’t flagellate himself so much—he worked hard for his achievement, just like millions of Americans do. What we want to instill in the American achiever is not guilt but a profound self-awareness, a quality that can restore humility and gratitude where unearned hubris has swept in. That way lies a happier society and a more gracious politics.

Read more about Libertarianism

Elbert Ventura is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.

Also by this author

They’ll Always Have Welfare

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus