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Benjamin's children

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 21, 2009

When reading the opening parts of Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, I was struck by the abundance of self-made men therein. The American Age of the Self-Made Man was a time when high economic growth coincided with not only minimal government but also mild deflation. Concurrently, or perhaps consequently, saving was common and borrowing was often looked at askance. To today's eyes, the success of American in the period 1866-1929 is so counterintuitive that the Great Depression might come as a relief. Now, there's no need to explain the oddity of the period!

As the revisionist history of Maury Klein has demonstrated, the so-called "Robber Baron era" was thrown under the bus decades ago. Because this age is so different, we can see facets that were taken for granted back then and denied in more recent times.

The usual source credited (or blamed) for that prominence of self-made men are Horatio Alger's stories. After examining them, the causality seems not to hold up. Alger's stories usually ended with the young lad being taken in by a wealthy patron. Usually, the protagonist did not end up wealthy himself. An Algeresque story set in today's world would feature a poor boy who: resolves to study hard; faces and overcomes peer pressure; fights despair and cynicism; and, winds up getting a scholarship to a prestigious university and a plum job upon graduation. The benefactor would have been a forward-looking corporation, or the prestigious university, or both in a team effort.

Winning a support system by dint of working hard and overcoming obstacles is not consistent with becoming a self-made tycoon, although it is consistent with winning one over. The life and career paths of self-made tycoons in the so-called Gilded Age have more in common with a real-life figure from America's revolutionary days: Ben Franklin. In a very real if allegorical way, the classic self-made American individual is one of Benjamin's children.

Nowadays, there's a different inspirational source. If there's one way to make yourself widely disliked in Silicon Valley, it would be to dump all over Ayn Rand. The connection between Atlas Shrugged and the tycoons of the Information Age is too evident to be dismissed – moreso for the lesser lights who've achieved sub-tycoon wealth. As evidence of the cultural influence of Rand, I point to the fact that Objectivists are basically left alone nowadays. To use taxman's lingo, Objectivists are now one kind of golden goose.

But not the only type. The golden goose of an older pedigree is a Benjamin's child.

Franklin was actually a bit of a fixer back in colonial times. Born to Puritan parents, he comported himself well with many denominations but remained a Deist. By Hooker's Doctrine, that made him by default an Anglican. At the time, membership or affiliation with Anglicanism was the ticket to wealth and influence. As a younger man, Ben was not averse to using connections to get ahead. Nor was he averse to snapping up government printing contracts and a plum position, the Deputy Postmaster-Generalship of North America. His later generosity can be explained by the fact that he used to be an operator.

I make this point not to debunk him, but to explain him. Franklin's achievements still stand, and it's not my goal to detract from them. I point out his earlier agreeableness to getting his hands greasy because it explains his habitual political behavior. Fixers are compromisers by nature, and tend to be pragmatic; they also tend to be political problem-solvers. One idea that Ben Franklin backed, before the Intolerable Acts kicked in, was to make the American colonies a self-governing Dominion like Canada is now. That idea never flew, in large part because Lord North was not the man to be charmed by it, but it was a compromiser's dream for the time. King George would have retained his sovereignty, and American would have self-government for everyday practical purposes. It seemed a great way to keep Americans happy while still remaining under the sovereignty of the King.

This kind of fellow tends to have a past, 'tis true, but he also possesses an easing empiricism. A Ben Franklin figure stirs up far less controversy than an Ayn Rand figure, even if it's harder to tell where the former stands.

If the time has come for Ben Franklin figures, then the question is: where to find them? The answer may surprise you.

Franklin was almost entirely self-educated. A high school dropout, he homeschooled himself on the side. Since his curriculum was self-chosen, he had to show initiative when learning. That same initiative, he showed in life; it was the well-spring of his many achievements. Conventional schooling inculcates diligence, but it also inculcates a lack of initiative. Sadly, the best teaching methods for imparting information also encourage intellectual passivity. Just study the unit, and do the Q&As diligently, and become habituated to it. The habit continues even after graduation. Feedback becomes the Q&A substitute, because the Q&As are themselves reinforcing feedback. They're deliberately designed to be so.

This kind of education suits a metrics-bound career quite well, but it atrophies the kind of free-form curiosity that pioneers and inventors need. A more child-directed curriculum, despite the risk of intellectual idiosyncrasy, doesn't. Homeschoolers, being less bound by structure, have the freedom to cultivate their initiative.

Consequently, any new Ben Franklins will be found in the homeschooler circuit.

Many of them won't become rich because a special upbringing is required to become a tycoon. One of the best homes is one where the father or mother had learned everything about how business really works, and then realized that (s)he doesn't have the heart for business. Such parents, if they choose to raise a business-hearted child, have a lot of relevant experience they can pass on – mostly, in the form of cautions. "I tried this, it didn't work." "I tried that, but found out I bit off more than I could chew…." No kind of education can pass that wisdom along; so, the dream of making tycoons through any educational process is impractical.

On the other hand, raising the initiative level isn't. One of the two that exposed ACORN corruption, Hannah Giles, was homeschooled for her final grades of high school. Although she was only one of two, her initiative helped make for a real wake-up call to the D.C. Establishment.

How many of her likesake are capable of becoming wake-up calls for the economy? ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.


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