All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Who Is a Self-Made Person?

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

In the wake of Judge Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, some commentators challenged the idea of the self-made individual. Columnist Ellen Goodman, for example, rejected the idea that anyone is self- made, claiming: “The ‘self’ is an infinitely complex product. It’s ‘made’ through an interaction of biology and environment, chances that come our way and those we take, coincidence and free will, reality and attitude.” She proceeded to chide Americans because “we go on collectively nurturing people in the belief that they are self-reliant.” Her conclusion? “The result of our lopsided view is that we end up living in a community that praises how little people need. We forget how much easier it is to grab hold of a bootstrap with a helping hand.”

But surely no one who believes in self-reliance holds that people with a decent start in life aren’t better off. What the idea of self-reliance means is that those who make the effort can take virtually any starting point and turn it into a success story.

No doubt, luck always has something to do with one’s achievements in life, yet not so much as one might think. There are prerequisites for luck—the alertness and willingness to make the most of opportunities when they arise. The chances and coincidences the critics of self-reliance stress about human life are all subject to our management. If we make the effort, we can take advantage of these factors. But not everyone will make that effort and apply himself or herself to make the most of a situation. There are talented people who let their gifts go to waste. There are those who suffer handicaps but develop themselves to their greatest capacity and even turn a liability into an asset.

It is difficult to give concrete examples of such cases without writing a biography. Only such a detailed account can reveal whether a person has made the most of the opportunities, has avoided the hazards, has navigated the maze that one finds along life’s path.

Not all the beautiful women and handsome men have the good sense and alertness to capitalize on their natural assets; not all those who have artistic, business, or scholarly talents are putting them to good use. What a self-made individual has done is to apply himself—keeping at the task of using his talents, seizing opportunities, and avoiding hazards.

Unfortunately, millions of others have chosen to abdicate and let others take care of them—especially the government, which claims that it can raise people out of poverty, cure the sick, educate the ignorant, and so forth, with minimal effort from the people involved. This image of people as victims is necessary for tyranny to flourish, be it of the petty variety we are experiencing in the United States or of the massive sort we find in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and, for too long, throughout human history.

In a recent letter to The New York Times, a Soviet economist observed that what most ails his nation is the belief by too many of its people that they are helpless, in constant need of assistance from their intellectuals and politicians. At the same time, many American intellectuals want to reject the idea of the human individual as capable of making a personal project of his or her life. The idea of personal responsibility and initiative, in both cases, is the target.

But the idea of self-reliance is America’s girl to the world, and is responsible for the enormous improvement in the lives of millions of people who have incorporated even a small portion of it into their thinking. One can only hope that those who reject this idea, who want to crush it before it gets any further play, do not succeed.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.