With the Republican presidential primary season underway, the topic of the role of government inevitably enters the roundtable. Much of this discussion originates from ideas about what separates the winners and losers in our society. Is everyone personally responsible for their own position in life? Is the level of your success directly related to the amount of work you’ve put in? Or have some people incurred difficult life situations by no fault of their own? It’s no secret that the right side of the political spectrum gravitates towards personal responsibility and rugged individualism. There are compelling arguments for this rationale. After all, we do have free will. But an argument I’ve heard thrown around I do not accept is the “I can do it so anyone can” argument. It falls in line with the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” saying. While the latter can be good advice, the former is a sly, dishonest way to bash people who are struggling to make it.
The obvious cognitive dissonance of person A—who’s had it made—telling person B—who’s homeless—that he became a millionaire so she has no excuse not to, is too easy to debunk. Where the rationale gets more compelling is when a person who has also been destitute, but has since found success, uses the logic on the down-and-out. Because then it’s more than just saying, “Look, I made it,” but adds in, “I made it from your position.” That’s logically sounder, but it still doesn’t work. And that’s what I want to dissect.
People’s individual lives are like fingerprints: no two are exactly the same. From a zoomed-out lens it’s easy to be intellectually lazy and look at people as black, homeless, homosexual, or wealthy, and then hit the start button on life—go! What follows are neatly categorized tales: this guy was black and achieved this; this woman was homeless and achieved that. You already see where this is going. If this black man became a CEO, why can’t you Mr. Black Guy? If this woman was homeless at one point, but is now a high-powered lawyer, why can’t you Ms. Homeless Lady? That’s convenient, but it’s not how real life works.
Without getting too esoterically philosophical, each instance of everyday, each chance encounter, is unique to everyone. Even though the odds of flipping heads on a coin are .5, it is possible to flip heads five times in a row. And with chance encounters and random opportunities, all it takes is one to get the ball rolling. If you painstakingly retraced every instance in someone’s life—like omniscient God, butterfly effect style—you could identify the specific origin of everything that shaped his life, no matter how insignificant. The point is that even if you have two people who start from seemingly similar positions in life, there are too many variables to make blanket statements about them. Some people are homeless before becoming millionaires, so what? What was their family situation? Who gave them a job? Who gave them money? Who inspired them? How attractive were they? How was their health? Where did they live? How big was their social circle? How much education did they have? What was their mental state? How genetically driven and intelligent were they? Any variance in answers to such questions ends the discussion, as that could be the difference between one person making it and the other one continuing to struggle.
To take the logic of the if “I can do it so anyone can” argument into deeper water, look at extraordinary cases that obviously not anyone can do. Barack Obama saying, “Hey, I became the first black president, start a campaign.” Wilt Chamberlain saying, “Hey, I played Center in the NBA and scored 100 points in a game, get off the couch.” For the latter, are you seven feet tall? No? End of argument. But for the person saying similar things who came from nothing, somewhere in your life you got a break from somewhere, from something. Somebody gave you a small loan, somebody put you on to a book, somebody gave you a chance. Nobody is 100% self-sufficient. And any one of those opportunities that you were on the receiving end of, someone else potentially did not get—and it only takes one; everybody’s lives are different. Spare me the self-righteous I-can-do-it-so-anyone-can drivel. You did it because you were fortunate enough to be able to do it.