The Strange Persistence of the Self-Made Man Myth

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Successful men like Bill Gates, and successful women like Sheryl Sandberg, are commonly thought to have risen to the top of the business world solely because of their own gifts and grit. It’s a concept popularized by Ayn Rand’s novels: captains of industry realize their own greatness completely on their own—in spite of the government (and the mediocre bureaucrats who work there) that supposedly holds them down.

No one disputes the unique business talents of people like Gates and Sandberg or the unique drive of many successful individuals. The truth, however, is that each and every business leader in the United States has had a lot of help — help that they would not have had if they had been born in another country that lacked strong institutions and infrastructure. In fact, every Gates and every Sandberg has only been able to flourish to their highest level because of the American structures and institutions that far-sighted public servants created to foster business growth.

The following examples show how government laid the foundation for businesses to succeed in the U.S., building capitalist enterprises that benefit us all. Despite what many hold to be true, government doesn’t hold capitalism back; it actually drives it forward. 

The U.S. Financial System

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was perhaps the most skilled governmental bureaucrat who ever lived. Under George Washington, he designed the financial and banking system that eventually enabled the United States to become the financial center of the world. This financial system enabled entrepreneurs to raise capital from investors looking for returns, provided financial and economic data for all to analyze, and enabled mechanisms of redress in case of disputes. America’s financial system helped this country become the largest economy on earth. Without it, no sustainable business would be possible—even if Warren Buffet himself were running it.  

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The Infrastructure That Empowers Our Lives

The lifeblood of commerce in the U.S. is its transportation system, funded over the centuries by the tax dollars of hundreds of millions of Americans. In the 1860s, in the midst of the Civil War, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that funded the transcontinental railroad. This opened up a flood of goods from coast-to-coast and enabled the creation of mail-order businesses such as the once revolutionary Sears, Roebuck & Company. In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration implemented the creation of the Interstate highway system, without which delivery-based businesses like Amazon.com would be impossible. Government also funds the airports that allow businesses like FedEx to become a reality—not to mention American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and so many more.

Education Enables us all to Contribute and Flourish

It would be difficult for most businesses to function absent a minimally educated labor force—and few businesses could afford to educate their workers themselves. Using local tax dollars, governments across the country have built the schools and paid the teachers who foster the educated workforce that makes business possible in the United States. The Boeing Company, for instance, which has more than 140,000 employees, is powered by workers who were first educated in high schools across the United States. The federal government has also created land-grant universities that educate the engineers and computer programmers that make the breakthrough technologies that enable CEOs to be celebrated as geniuses.  

Health: You Can’t Work if You’re Sick

In addition to educating workers, the federal government helps ensure workers stay healthy—and that consumers stay healthy too. Federal research has funded remarkably successful programs such as Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, which has all but eradicated a disease and saved hundreds of thousands of lives (if not millions globally). Government programs such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control continue to invest in the new drugs and treatments that ensure a healthy populace.

America Leads the World in Technology for a Specific Reason

There’s no doubt that Intel co-founder Andy Grove was a great businessman. But he knew Intel wouldn’t have been possible without the federal government’s massive, forward-thinking investment in technology. Led by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, the federal government was the key initial investor in silicon computer chips, and government investment in Silicon Valley explains why it is where it is. Oh yeah, and the U.S. Department of Defense also invented the Internet.

The Rule of Law

There are many brilliant aspects to the American experiment, but the most important one may be the rule of law. Of the varied reasons why the most talented men and women from around the world flock to the United States to start their businesses, one of the most important is that you get to keep the companies you start. In countries such as Russia or Venezuela, a CEO can find himself imprisoned and have his company pilfered overnight by an autocrat and his thugs. Not so in the United States.

Not yet at least.

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