It Takes a Village to Make a Millionaire: New Report Blasts Myth of the Self-Made Man

[ This new report is just the right response to Bush’s oft-repeated “it’s your money” justification of cutting taxes. The belief that what’s collected in taxes is “your money,” to be returned to you by the government in times of budget surplus, rests on a confusion. The precondition of “you” acquiring large sums of money is that a society set goals (security, education, transportation infrastructures, etc.) and raise funds through taxation to satisfy those goals. It is conventions in such societies that determine how much money counts as “your money.” There is no quantity of money that counts as “yours” independently of such conventions. Yet that is just what the “it’s your money” claim depends on. –BL ]

June 24, 2004 | United For A Fair Economy

Download the report [PDF 280 KB]

A new report, “I Didn’t Do It Alone: Society’s Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success,” spotlights successful entrepreneurs and concludes that the myth of self-made success is destructive to the social and economic infrastructure that fosters wealth creation.

  • Martin Rothenberg, the son of a housepainter and sales clerk, grew up to become a multimillionaire software entrepreneur.
  • Investor Warren Buffett is the world’s second-wealthiest person.
  • Ben Cohen co-founded Ben & Jerry’s with no business background and walked away with $40 million when the company was sold years later.

While these three seem typical examples of self-made success, they’re not. None of them believes they did it on their own. Like others profiled in the report, they attribute their success to many factors, among them public schools and colleges, government investment in research and small business assistance, contributions of employees, and strong legal and financial systems.

“How we think about wealth creation is important since policies such as large tax cuts for the wealthy often draw on the myth of the self-made man,” says “I Didn’t Do It Alone” co-author Chuck Collins. “Taxes are portrayed as onerous, unfair redistribution of privately created wealth — not as reinvestment or giving back to society. Yet, where would many wealthy entrepreneurs be today without taxpayer investment in the Internet, transportation, public education, legal system, the human genome and so on?”

Jim Sherblom, a venture capitalist and former chief financial officer of the biotech firm, Genzyme, says, “The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods — like roads, transportation, markets — and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative. A piece of it was built upon this infrastructure that we all have this inherent moral obligation to keep intact.”

“I Didn’t Do It Alone” shows not only that society’s role in wealth creation is significant, but if that role withers from inadequate revenues and political will, then opportunities for wealth and innovation will shrink. Entrepreneurism, the economy and society will be undermined.

“I Didn’t Do It Alone” was written by Chuck Collins, co-author with Bill Gates Sr. of “Wealth and Our Commonwealth” and associate director of United for a Fair Economy; Scott Klinger, co-director of Responsible Wealth and a Chartered Financial Analyst; and Mike Lapham, co-director of Responsible Wealth.

Responsible Wealth is a project of United for a Fair Economy, an independent national non-profit that raises awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear communities apart.


“I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”

— Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

“My wealth is not only a product of my own hard work. It also resulted from a strong economy and lots of public investment, both in others and in me. I received a good public school education and used free libraries and museums paid for by others. I went to college under the GI Bill. I went to graduate school to study computers and language on a complete government scholarship… While teaching at Syracuse University for 25 years, my research was supported by numerous government grants… My university research provided the basis for Syracuse Language Systems…”

— Martin Rothenberg, founder of Syracuse Language Systems and Glottal Enterprises

“Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don’t have a fraction of what I have. I realize I don’t have my wealth because I’m so brilliant. Luck has a lot to do with it.”

— Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, Inc.

“The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods–like roads, transportation, markets–and public investments… We are all standing on the shoulders of all that came before us, and creating a society for our children and those that come after us. We have obligations as part of that.”

— Jim Sherblom, venture capitalist and former chief financial officer of Genzyme

“I feel like there’s no way I’ve done this by myself… Every single person we worked with has contributed to making Hanna what it is today… People in Sweden don’t like paying taxes either, but nobody would ever suggest that you would close schools because you didn’t have enough money to keep them open.”

— Gun Denhart, co-founder of Hanna Andersson clothing company

“I know a lot of people who believe their success is only due to their hard work, their ingenuity… They say, ‘I made it, it’s mine and I’m going to hold onto it.’… My response it that a lot of factors go into building a successful business. For instance, did they go to a public high school or a tax-supported college? A lot of folks forget the help they got… The support of our legal and financial system…is unique in the world in assisting business enterprise. We take it for granted.”

— David Lewis, founder of AirGas

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