Ralph Benko

“In the autobiographies published every year by the billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness. … In the famous nineteenth-century novels of Horatio Alger, young boys born into poverty rise to riches through a combination of pluck and initiative. ‘I think overall it’s a disadvantage,’ Jeb Bush once said of what it meant for his business career that he was the son of an American president and the brother of an American president and the grandson of a wealthy Wall Street banker and US senator. When he ran for governor of Florida, he repeatedly referred to himself as a ‘self-made man,’ and it is a measure of how deeply we associate success with the efforts of the individual that few batted an eye at that description.” — Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: the Story of Success, p. 18

This columnist, last week, observed that “The GOP’s moral imperative is in fighting for equal opportunity and equal justice for ‘the little guy.’ It is in default.”

Why has this default happened? The evidence says that Horatio Alger is the perp. And so Horatio Alger must die.

One of the most heartbreaking books this columnist ever has read is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. The heartbreak? It lays out cost-free, proven successful, directions — to create extraordinary successes. The world marveled and then, mostly, ignored it.

In Outliers, Gladwell quantifies and analyzes compelling factors that fall outside the narrative that too often governs political thought in America. To get America back on track we have to shatter the governing Horatio Alger myth.

Gladwell: “People don’t rise from nothing. …. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

Gladwell by no means diminishes the crucial roles both of talent and effort for success. Yet he rescues, and reveals, the role that opportunity plays in every success story he investigates.

Ralph Benko

Ralph Benko, author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to use the Web to transform the world. He serves as an advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's thegoldstandardnow.org and senior advisor to the American Principles Project.