You’re adept at making tons and tons of money? That’s nice. Now, get off my porch.


A few weeks back, I began to compile a list of the idols that get extremely short shrift in this contrarian’s world.

These are the tenets of conventional Americans wisdom that I refrain from worshiping. If allowed to bop along unprovoked, I also generally don’t openly disdain them, but today I’m feeling a tad challenged.

Among the concepts I refuse to worship are the narrow (automobiles as genital extension mechanisms, big-time college sports, Miller Lite tastes great) and the broad (gods and religion; flags and patriotism).

Capitalism’s pretty high on my list of conceptual conscientious objection, especially the way we’ve come to practice it in contemporary America.

I accept that it takes all sorts to make a world, and for someone to be good at running a business is fine by me. I’ve even done it on an often unintentionally non-profit basis.

However, to me this skill exists alongside musical aptitude, vocational ability, linguistic prowess, and so many other components that define a human being.

When it comes to elevating capitalism to a value system I’m supposed to accept without question and venerate as the highest aspiration of a man or woman, then you can count me out. If memory serves, neither the Constitution nor the Bible stipulates capitalism, although as noted in the space only recently, a case can be made for Buddhist Economics.

The morning Constitutional: “It is capitalism that must be overcome to solve its inherent inequality problem.”

The reason for today’s rumination stems directly from a conversation I had yesterday, in which it was deemed an item of central importance that a wealthy man had been born poor, and raised himself up to praiseworthy status as a billionaire — verily, a “self-made man.”


Tellingly, even an obvious disciple of “the business of America is business” is capable of seeing through the fallacy of the “self-made man,” as here:

Self-Made Man – No Such Thing, by Mike Myatt (Forbes)

Do you view yourself as a self-made man or woman? If you do, you may want to take another look in the mirror. What’s wrong with the “self-made” theory? Everything. If your pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance keeps you from recognizing the contributions of others, then it’s time for a wake-up call. If your hubris is overwhelming your humility then the text that follows is written just for you.

An article at Slate takes the debunking considerably further.

The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth, by John Swansburg

I’ve always admired what my father accomplished, and how he accomplished it, while not quite sharing his confidence that his experience was repeatable, especially in our current economic moment. The yawning gap between the dearly held ideal of the self-made man and the difficulty of actually improving your station in America, particularly if you’re poor, made me wonder about the utility of the rags-to-riches story. Is it a healthy myth that inspires us to aim high? Or is it more like a mass delusion keeping us from confronting the fact that poor Americans tend to remain poor Americans, regardless of how hard they work?

The reason I personally refuse to worship the idol of the “self-made man” (note the traditionally and annoyingly masculine usage) parallels my unwillingness to fetishize capitalism, because in both instances, the common denominator is the accumulation of money and wealth to the exclusion of other characteristics that might be plausibly applied to a definition of adult success.

Put another way, we’re all self-made to an extent in terms of our interests; taking into account the Forbes columnist Myatt’s valuable listing of the ways we’ve all been helped by others along the way — teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, co-workers — most of us discover nuanced interests, and even when deprived of material resources, these are honed into what delights and defines us.

Impoverishment surely closes off certain of these avenues of self-development, and I’d be a fool to deny it. But I’d be equally foolish to say that the impoverished might choose at any point to embrace capital accumulation and lift themselves to wealth and influence. It plainly isn’t so in most cases, and to push the analogy even further, some of us aren’t inclined to be capitalists, just as I’m not equipped (or inclined) to sing Pavarotti’s arias.

All the same, there might be a very poor 50-year-old man who can sing these parts because he’s been practicing them on his own, passionately, his whole life, and to me, such a man would be eligible for lauding as “self-made” as much as any billionaire.

He’s more likely to be denigrated because he remains poor. It always has to be about money, right?

Not in my world.

I may know how to play a game, and I may be good at it (or not). It doesn’t mean it’s the right game to play.