Strive and succeed. That’s the motto that gets hammered into Americans’ heads from the day they’re born. Work hard and you will be prosperous. It’s a credo that Americans have embraced wholeheartedly; after all, it’s the land of opportunity, right? So what better domain to operate under this simple formula that greater effort equals greater reward.
We have come to call this the Horatio Alger narrative, after the popular author who wrote a series of young adult “rags to riches” novels in which the hero, always a hardworking and honest youth, finally achieves good fortune. These cheesy turn-of-the-century books both embodied and propagated the popularity of the “Protestant work ethic” in the U.S. If you look beneath the surface, however, you see that things aren’t quite so simple.
First of all, if you examine more closely the Alger books themselves, you see that the stories aren’t quite as you might expect from the hype. They do not really involve underprivileged individuals building successful lives on their own efforts. Instead, the young protagonists get a leg up by somehow currying favor with older, already successful role models. This plot device, by the way, was drawn from Alger’s own life. Before he became an author, he was a minister who took an interest in befriending and mentoring youths in his flock. He lost that gig when it was discovered that he had been, um, getting a little too friendly with them.
A closer scrutiny of the narrative, in other words, betrays the truth about a common component of the myth: the persona of rugged independence has been greatly distorted. Independence is certainly an admirable quality, and some people possess it more than others. But the part of the myth that is really mythical is the notion that it’s possible to be a success (particularly in the financial sense, as the word success is almost always intended in America) without the aid of other people. Even the most independent entrepreneur in the world will not earn a dime without customers or clients to purchase his or her goods or services.
Many Americans, however, have been conditioned to think of prosperity as a pie, and when some people are served a slice, it subtracts from what other people get. Consequently, they look upon programs to assist the needy as a drain upon taxpayers rather than an investment that can benefit everyone. And they try to rationalize this attitude with the talking point that “handouts breed dependency” — unless, of course, they’re talking about “handouts” for the wealthy.
A sad corollary and side effect of the Horatio Alger myth is the attitude that people deserve whatever economic status they find themselves in. Thus the rich deserve to be rich (even the Walton family or the 45th White House Occupant, who’ve never had to work a day in their pampered lives), and the poor deserve to be poor — even homeless, shell-shocked veterans and people who have been plagued with medical bills and other misfortunes.
This has given rise to the myth of the “welfare queen”, the “welfare Cadillac”, and so on. The popular stereotype about recipients of public assistance is that they are lazy minorities who have become dependent on government intervention. In reality, most are white, are employed at least part time, are desperate to get off the dole, and stay on it only a short time. And the amount of your tax money that goes toward such programs is hardly a sliver in comparison to other budgetary allotments, some of which are far less benign and productive.
To observe how the Horatio Alger myth breaks apart when exposed to oxygen, all we need do is consider in a little more detail the life of the one person who is perhaps most often touted as its personification: Abraham Lincoln. We all know that he was born in a log cabin, had an impoverished childhood, was hardworking and dedicated and honest (actually, he wasn’t all that honest, but that’s another story) and eventually not only worked his way up to the world’s most prestigious position, but became what many consider the greatest leader in the nation’s history. All well and good. But there are other details about him that you don’t hear about quite so much.
As a young man, he lost his job and lost a race for the state legislature. The following year, his grocery business failed, incurring debts that took 15 years to repay. A couple of years later, he finally was elected to the legislature, but then he lost two races for Speaker of the House. A few years after that, he managed to get elected to Congress, but was defeated for reelection two years later. Then he lost a race for a land-office seat. He then lost two bids to be elected senator, and one bid to be vice-president. Finally, at age 51, he ran for president. And won.
Now on the one hand, Lincoln’s trajectory illustrates the importance of tenacity and dedication. So it’s understandable that it would be used to illustrate the axiom “try, try again.” BUT…suppose he had died at the age of 50? Do you think he would be remembered today? There’s not much to indicate he would be, and certainly he would not have been remembered as one of the nation’s greatest statesmen. In fact, his life up to that point was distinguished more by failure than by success.
Lincoln’s biography was boosted tremendously by the fact that, mostly out of sheer chance, his death was delayed by a few years. Yet even before he was catapulted into the history books, he still possessed those skills and traits that made him famous, even though he was then quite unknown. In other words, while hard work and character are admirable and productive, luck is also a big factor. How many other men and women have lived who possessed character comparable to Honest Abe’s and worked as hard as he did, but are now forgotten because they died before their efforts paid off?
None of this is to suggest that the Horatio Alger myth isn’t useful. Perhaps it is even essential. It’s certainly important, at least, to foster the attitude that hard work produces satisfaction and reward (even if the reward isn’t always monetary). It’s important to understand that effort is productive. But it’s also important to understand that there is not a direct, consistent, predictable correlation between the amount of effort and the amount of reward. It’s important to have empathy for those who are struggling, and at least occasionally, offer them a helping hand. The risk of having people become “dependent on a handout” isn’t nearly as real as the risk of having the next Abe Lincoln die unknown.