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Common Wealth and the 'Entirely Self-Made' Myth

Michael Schwalbe

Every year since 1982 Forbes magazine has published a list of the 400 richest Americans. Anyone who wants to attach names and faces to the abstract notion of a "ruling class" should pick up a copy of the October 8, 2007, special issue. In profiling these richest of the rich, Forbes serves its self-proclaimed function as a "capitalist tool" -- not by offering advice on management strategies but by helping to manage popular consciousness.

Such management is necessary in a country where 1% of the population owns nearly 40% of the wealth. Lest this egregiously skewed distribution of resources evoke too many moral qualms, Forbes assures us, issue after issue, that economic inequality is the result of a fair game in which the smartest and hardest-working naturally rise to the top. Forbes tells us, for instance, that of those 400 richest Americans, 270, or about two-thirds, are "entirely self-made."

Yes, they say "entirely."

This doesn't mean, as one might think, that these fortunate folks came from abject poverty and fought their way up. In fact, most of those whom Forbes calls "entirely self-made" came from what working-class Americans would see as country club backgrounds. Typically, these billionaires (it takes $1.3 billion just to get on the list) came from homes with abundant resources and well-educated parents, and they went to top schools themselves. They are nearly all white.

What Forbes means by "entirely self-made" is that the fortunes were not inherited but derived from business activity. Does this make the Forbes definition of "entirely self-made" reasonable? After all, if someone starts with modest resources, does well in business, and makes a fortune, isn't it fair to attribute that wealth to individual merit? Not really, though Forbes would like us to think so.

To see what's wrong with this idea, it's easiest to start with criteria that ought to disqualify a person from claiming to be "entirely self-made." After we've applied these criteria, we can see who's left in the pool. So, then, let us scratch from the list of the self-made anyone whose accumulation of wealth has been aided by any of the following:

  • Laws concerning property or contracts, and the public agencies that enforce such laws
  • Public schools or employees educated in public schools
  • Employees or customers who rely on public transportation
  • Roads, bridges, airports, sewers, water treatment plants, harbors, or other utilities built and maintained at public expense
  • Mail systems built and operated at public expense
  • Public hospitals and government-licensed physicians
  • Health and safety regulations created and enforced at public expense
  • Police and fire protection provided at public expense
  • Public libraries and parks
  • Any public amenities that add value to commercial or residential real estate
  • Government contracts
  • Government-provided business incentives
  • Regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission, that sustain trust in the stock market
  • A government-granted license permitting the exclusive use of a broadcast channel
  • The Internet
  • A form of currency legitimated and backed by a stable government
  • Social welfare programs that keep the poor from rebelling
  • The U.S. military

If we use these criteria to determine who can legitimately claim to be "entirely self-made," the Forbes number drops dramatically. It's not 270 out of 400. In fact, it's precisely zero.

If not for the legal and political arrangements that we create and maintain as a society -- with contributions from us all, costs to us all, and benefits to us all -- and if not for what we call "the public infrastructure," nobody could accumulate wealth. In short, there can be no private wealth without common wealth.

Forbes and the economic class it represents would like us to forget that wealth always depends on collective effort. Why? Because of what the "entirely self-made" myth implies: If I have amassed a fortune solely through my individual talent and hard work, then it is wrong for the government to take any of it away. By further implication, taxation is wrong, and progressive taxation is really wrong.

Casting "the government" as an evil entity that confiscates the fruits of one's labors also serves the interests of the Forbes class. Working-class and middle-class people who embrace this view are less likely to take an interest in government as a means to build, protect, and fairly employ the nation's common wealth. By helping to portray government as the enemy of individual initiative and prosperity, the "entirely self-made" myth thus also saps the spirit of democracy, leaving government ever more in the control of the wealthy.

In a competitive, individualistic society like the U.S., the "entirely self-made" myth is seductive. It gives us the pleasure of taking credit for our successes. It also mitigates the guilt that can come from recognizing our own class privilege. The "entirely self-made" myth is handy for both self-congratulation as for self-absolution.

But we should reject the myth -- not just because it's wrong, but because, unlike many other comforting myths about American society, this one has especially pernicious consequences for democracy and community. At worst, it can make us feel that we have no right to democratic control of our common wealth.

If we recognize that all private wealth depends on our common wealth, then we incur two obligations. One is to contribute our fair share -- and the bigger the rewards we derive from society, the bigger that share should be. The other obligation is to participate in protecting our common wealth and determining how it is used. We should not let those decisions be made only by those who sell us a self-serving myth and then laugh all the way to the bank.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is "Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World" (Oxford, 2020).

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