It Takes a Village to Make a Millionaire

New report blasts myth of the self-made man

| July 29, 2004


19th Century American author Horatio Alger made a living selling the myth of the self-made man. In each of his novels, a young protagonist overcame hardship and adversity through hard work and determination, pulling himself out of the gutter by his own bootstraps and earning his success as a proverbial army of one. This myth has long been intertwined with the American consciousness, used as an explanation of and justification for society's staggering triumphs and dramatic inequalities. But a new report, 'I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success,' presents a cross section of successful entrepreneurs and shows that their success, while based in part on personal achievement, can also be attributed to their circumstances and community. Each individual profiled in the report attributes a large measure of their success to education, government assistance, and existing infrastructures.

The report hinges on the idea that any individual's accomplishments are inevitably supported by the public sector. One such individual, former biotech CFO Jim Sherblom, says, 'The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods -- like roads, transportation, markets -- and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative. A piece of it was built upon this infrastructure that we all have this inherent moral obligation to keep intact.' The healthy funding of public resources, then, more than tax cuts, effectively encourages entrepreneurship.

The study has significant implications in the realm of public policy, particularly tax law. 'How we think about wealth creation is important since policies such as large tax cuts for the wealthy often draw on the myth of the self-made man,' says the report's co-author, Chuck Collins. 'Taxes are portrayed as onerous, unfair redistribution of privately created wealth -- not as reinvestment or giving back to society. Yet, where would many wealthy entrepreneurs be today without taxpayer investment in the Internet, transportation, public education, legal system, the human genome and so on?' The recognition of the public role in private profit is crucial to any kind of profit, public or private -- the myth of the Horatio Alger protagonist must be demolished if Alger's dream is to become reality.
-- Brendan Themes

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