Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ben Carson vs Socialism: the Myth of the Self-Made Man

On Wednesday, while waiting for my flight back to London, I had occasion once again to survey the selection of books on offer at San Francisco International Airport's news stand/bookstore. It was a powerful reminder that, awful as the WH Smith concessions at UK airports are, they usually have a wider selection than the thrillers and right-wing screeds infesting American airport bookshelves. I suppose that's why Tom Clancy's books are called "airport novels", eh? Because they satisfy both of these requirements.

Anyway, one of the books that caught my eye was by Ben Carson, entitled America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great. Not being in the current of American news, I had no idea who this guy was (although that's now remedied thanks to Wikipedia), so I had a quick look at the back cover, and the inside front blurbs, to see who was endorsing him. After all, you can generally get a good idea of where someone's politics lie by who likes them. And, appropriately enough, one of the endorsements was from Billy Graham's grandson.

Not that I really needed that - conservatives are usually the only ones writing books like that. I'm not sure why, because I don't really think liberals are particularly satisfied with the way America's going, and it might help us win the meme war if we co-opted some of that language for ourselves.

Anyway, Dr Carson had a chapter in his book entitled "Capitalism: Pros and Cons". I wanted to see what a conservative guy thought was negative about capitalism (maybe that there isn't enough of it?), so I flipped through and had a look. Instead of a nice, orderly list, or even sections entitled "pro" or "con", he just talked about growing up in poverty in Boston and how his mother pushed him to excel in school. So far, so uncontroversial - conservatives may not believe this, but liberals like to see people do well, too. That is, after all, why we advocate social programs and sharing wealth.

He then talked about a friend of his who worked at the FAA and came up with an invention to make plane landings more stable. This friend was offered $500 or so for his invention, so he (not unreasonably) decided to go into the private sector to see if he could get more money for it. He was promptly hired and told he'd get a certain percentage of the profits, but then just as promptly quit when his new boss reneged on that deal. So he then went into business for himself.

That's where I stopped reading, because I wanted to grab a sandwich ahead of my flight, and it wasn't that interesting anyway. But the implication seemed to be that this friend's experience could only have occurred in America. I'd like to posit the opposite: not only are European countries amply supplied with bureaucratic and inefficient agencies, but you can get cheated by your employer just about anywhere. So much for a shining city on a hill.

More to the point, and jokes aside, it is also possible to set up your own business in supposedly socialist countries like the UK, Germany, Sweden, etc. I'm always irritated by this idea that a lot of American conservatives have, that the US is the only productive place in the whole world, while the rest of Europe is sitting around eating bon bons on vacation. While the rankings change all the time, depending on who's crunching the numbers, the US consistently fails to hit the top spot - particularly considering that the European economies offer a lot more vacation time and still hit comparable productivity numbers. It also kind of suggests that the Asian economies could let their people ease off, since they're never anywhere near the top anyway.

The other thing that bothers me about Dr Carson's line of reasoning is the widely cherished idea among conservatives that they're completely self-made. Obviously Dr Carson's experience will be different from mine: he's black, he grew up in poverty and pulled himself out, and built himself a successful medical career, followed by time in the national spotlight thanks to his writing and speaking opportunities.

But what if one little thing had been different? What if, at any given point in his life, he hadn't had help from somebody else? For instance, if his mother hadn't pushed him to continue studying, would he have eventually become a neurosurgeon? I suspect not. Same with his college and medical school experience - people helped him along the way at various points, while others of his peers didn't receive the same help at the right time and didn't end up with the same level or type of success.

Or think of his friend at the FAA - without the "socialistic" idea of a federal agency to regulate aviation, this guy might not have had a job in the first place. He certainly wouldn't have had the experience to come up with his invention, or the credibility to pitch it convincingly to a company in the private sector. He might have come up with something else that would have made him rich - but it's not a given.

I guess all I'm saying is that the next time someone says they're completely self-made, and that nobody gave them anything to get them where they are today, they should take a closer look at their own experiences. They might find that they've received a lot more help from the people and institutions around them than they thought.