The Phony Battle over the Self-Made Man

Party politics give us a false choice about the roots of success

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event in Leesburg, Va., on Aug. 2, 2012

The so-called self-made man has become a political lightning rod. This has been made starkly clear in recent weeks by the reactions to President Obama’s much dissected “you didn’t build that” line. What Obama said was: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help … Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts candidate for U.S. Senate, first voiced this theme in a video that went viral, arguing that the success of any entrepreneur is made possible by the roads, schools and police that generations of ordinary citizens have paid for. (“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” was her memorable line.)

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But Romney’s allies have spun Obama’s “you didn’t build that” clause to mean “business owners shouldn’t get credit for building their own businesses,” and they’ve shamelessly attacked Obama as an un-American collectivist. And so in the echo chamber of partisan politics, we are left with a false choice: either recognize that no one does it alone or celebrate heroic entrepreneurs. Those who emphasize infrastructure — not just roads but also the rule of law and common institutions — are called dangerous socialists. Those who preach “free enterprise” — individual liberty and ingenuity, the power of the market to reward the best people — are delusional apologists for the already powerful.

But common sense tells us that America’s greatness is the product of both collective and individual endeavor. It also tells us things are starkly out of balance. Over the past 30 years, as the very idea of government has come under constant attack and as market thinking has crept into every crevice of our lives, selfish individualism has become the norm.

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If we truly care about being the country that yields the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, we have to address today’s severe income inequality and restore a healthier balance. This isn’t charity; it’s competitiveness. To put it in Olympic terms, it’s boosting the ranks of talented players for our team.

Ultimately, we have to break out of false choices about the roots of success. What’s ironic about the Obama-Romney argument is that each proves the other’s point. Obama, who ascended with no family connections or wealth, is testament to the importance of personal drive and effort. Romney, son of a CEO and governor, is proof that context matters and that inherited advantages are self-reinforcing.

Both Romney and Obama downplay these essential truths. Maybe Obama should take a little more credit, to assuage those who wonder whether he sufficiently values individual initiative. And maybe Romney should take a little less, to acknowledge that few people start where he did. Then maybe we can get on with making sure that more Americans, in this time of shrinking opportunity, can actually make it.

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