We’ve all heard rags-to-riches stories about successful individuals who “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.” Certainly, many successful business people owe their good fortune to hard work and innovative thinking. But, to describe those people as “self-made” would be to dismiss a big piece of reality—the role of the commons.
Would Bill Gates have enjoyed as much success as he has if he tried launching Microsoft from a country that lacked the wealth and resources of the U.S.? Of course, we’ll never know, but it’s safe to say his chances would have been much less likely. Think of an invention or business idea that you’ve always wanted to launch. Now, think of the things you would need to achieve some level of success with that idea. Who will make your product? Who will buy what you’re selling? Will your venture depend on the internet? How about roadways or railroads? Would your idea have even been possible without government-funded research?
Businesses rely on people from all walks of life not just to buy their products or services, but also to produce and bring them to market along with everything else that goes into running a business. Common resources provide a framework on which a successful business may be built. That includes, to name a few examples, public education, our transportation system and the internet.
Some of us are lucky enough to get a leg up through inheritance and other privileges available to wealthy and upper-income families. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but any meaningful dialogue has to recognize that not everyone begins at the same starting line. It’s equally important to understand that the solutions to the ongoing economic crisis don’t necessarily have to come from people who have proved that they know how to make money. We can all be part of the solution, regardless of our stations in life.
Last year, I spent several months in Khayelitsha, an impoverished community in Cape Town, South Africa where they are deficient in money, but make up for it with community. They have a saying in South Africa that embodies this — “Ubuntu,” which means “I am because we are.” On birthdays, for example, rather than being the recipients of gifts, community members offer what modest gifts they can afford to those who have had positive impacts on their lives.
Those who have achieved business success may have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but they weren’t the only ones helping them to stand on two feet. Their success was made possible by the millions of people—rich, poor and everyone in between—that contribute to the common good. There is no such thing as “self-made” success.
Let’s embrace Ubuntu as a national community. The richest among us should pay it forward, not just because they have the most to give, but as a way to honor the contributions society has made toward their success.
Jessica Morneault is an organizer for Responsible Wealth (RW) project at United for a Fair Economy. RW is a network of hundreds of wealthy and upper-income individuals who are using their voices of privilege to fight for fair taxes and corporate accountability. Learn more about what you can do to help bust the self-made myth at www.selfmademyth.org <http://www.selfmademyth.org> .