The myth of the Self Made (Wo)man

A person who has risen from poverty or obscurity by means of her/his own talents or energies

This seems like a satisfactory definition of a self-made person. The most irritating proponent of this myth is of course Ayn Rand. But one must also understand the social and economic milieu that Rand wrote this stuff in (I had written about it in my review of ‘The Age of Capital’), which definitely shaped her attitudes towards certain behavioral traits.

Is one’s own talents or energies enough to rise from/above anything ? If you use your prodigious reading abilities to gain genius status, you still owe it to those who laid the foundation for your thought. Living in a civilization for the past 5000 years, human efforts are both cumulative and incremental. We would have to quite literally reinvent the wheel every generation if it were not cumulative and we would be having radically new kinds of wheels every generation if it were not incremental (as opposed to disruptive). Like any other organism on this earth, humans can flourish only given certain conditions. These are usually out of the powers of our talents or abilities to create (unless of course, one can prevent drought or volcanic eruptions or desertification). Thus, it has always been that we depend on innumerable things out of our control, like not getting murdered, to achieve what we want to. Thus, any application of talents and energies are contingent upon a large number of unconstrained variables.

Aynd Rand’s characters are also subject to the same rules (even after accounting for literary license), but they are never made explicit anywhere. Her protagonists are ultra-rich or noveau ultra-rich people with unending talents and energies who look to reach pinnacles of whatever they want without regard for others unless they served some purpose (she obviously was not familiar with Paris Hilton or her coterie), and the antagonists
are their dependents who look to waste all the money earned in doing stupid charity, and usually are lacking in talent like their husband/brother/contemporary (she probably ignored Gandhi). Like all bestsellers, things have to be in perfect black and white (no one has time for measured or qualified manifestoes) and appealing to the basest instincts of people, which in Rand’s case is greed.

A more sensible libertarian doctrine is J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill says that men came together for the sole purpose of self-protection (and prostitution somehow insinuated in, I guess) and therefore men should be allowed to do things as they wish as long as they were not breaking the fundamental premise of protection for all. Although in Mill’s time colonizing others was not yet part of the definition of ‘protection for all’, this statement seems pretty ok (read the essay for issues that creep in). However, with the present day knowledge of ecology and earth sciences along with more detailed social analyses, it is hard to think of too many things that one can do without doing something wrong to someone, unless it is meditating under the Bodhi tree. We encourage sweatshops by buying branded clothes, trash the world by going about our normal routine lives (oil, plastic, cement, iron, coal …), there is practically nothing that we do that does not exploit someone and does not destroy the environment. Like I mentioned in my previous post, as long as the unit of analysis is an individual all the time, such matters dont matter. While the ‘rights of man‘ are important, the corresponding ‘duties of man’ has yet to be delineated (maybe because they are far too difficult to imagine!).

All this may seem anti-liberal and left-leaning, but is hardly so. It simply interpreting individualism in a different way. Karl Popper’s utopia consisted of highly individualistic people engaged in abstract transactions which would be studied by the discipline of economics. Unfortunately or otherwise, this has not turned out so be, and people are still inextricably linked by a social web and a food web. If individualism is a celebration of individual differences, they why are we so callous when interacting with others, especially if we consider them our inferiors. Putting the individual in the forefront refuses to recognize that people almost always do the opposite, putting their families, offices, nations, language ahead of themselves. The welfare of the individual must result in the welfare of all concerned, simply because of the conditions for an individual to flourish are not under her control.

Even worse is the confusion that most people seem to have between individualism and egotism. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want‘ is an egotistic statement, not an individualistic one. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want when I don’t infringe on another’s right to do the same‘ does not sound as catchy, but is more inline with liberal thinking. ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you‘ is probably a better formulation of the above.

As if Ayn Rand was not bad enough, they came up with a fan club to promote her views. Atleast she was a good author, these people do bad philosophy in a bad way. Calling environmentalists ‘looters'(even the terminology is from the `30’s) because they do not allow resource exploitation is not going to win too many friends nowadays. Boys will be boys, to put it in a condescending way ;)


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