Let’s ditch the “self–made man” myth and try a new approach to economics


How many times have you heard someone referred to as “self-made?” Do you notice that many of those people think everyone else in the industrialised world could achieve exactly what they did? I wonder how they’d explain why we aren’t wading knee deep in successful entrepreneurs. Is it just that the rest of us can’t be bothered?

UK Chancellor George Osborne will reveal more of his vision for the UK economy shortly in the Autumn Statement. New research shows the extent to which we all contribute to support private enterprise but budget coverage tends to focus instead on welfare for individuals and families.

When his 2015 budget came out earlier this year, Channel 4 News broadcast from the English resort of Southend. A group of locals were wrangled and plonked on a windy beach to be interrogated about their reactions. The amuse bouche for this seaside grilling was a video featuring Kerry, a young businesswoman whom the reporter introduced as “self-made in business since she was a teenager.” Kerry is clearly a bright, motivated and very hard working person. She started a beauty salon after leaving school at 16 and working as a waitress. Her advice to people on benefits or low wages: “Don’t have a champagne lifestyle on lemonade money.” I imagined a warm fuzzy Britain, horizontal on the Le Corbusier upending a bottle with one hand, flipping blinis to the pug with the other.

Back in the real world, apprentices in the beauty salon receive £2.70 an hour or $4.16 – in line with the UK National Minimum Wage. For workers over 21, the minimum is £6.70 or $10.33. In the US the federal minimum is $7.25 but 29 states pay more, with the Washington D.C. minimum at $10.50. The cost of housing is rising faster than incomes on both sides of the pond, so life is far from bubbly for most.

Living within one’s means is not just about salaries and rent though. What about our environmental and human means? Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country without war, epidemic disease and drought, what about those of us who must cope with a body or mind that doesn’t work properly, an alcohol or drug-addicted parent, a global recession, or even chronic shyness, aversion to indebtedness or a lack of interest in maths? I hope there is some wiggle room in Kerry’s other piece of advice “your life can be as easy or has hard as you can make it”.


When did interdependence become as undesirable as the swine flu anyway? Nothing on the planet is self-made and our financial success is no exception. Effort and finance from past generations means we now have maternity hospitals, schools, state-backed banking and transport systems, tarred roads, clean water, refuse collection [takes a breath], street lighting, emergency services, museums, libraries and scientific breakthroughs. All the things and more that made it possible for those lucky enough to live in the “West” to have a chance of thriving. They also made it possible for every “self-made” man and woman to run a private business.

Most kids learn quickly that you can have more fun and build bigger things collaborating with others. In the grown up world, CERN is perhaps the ultimate example of why we shouldn’t ditch that impulse as adults: 22 governments cooperating every day and a stunning list of scientific achievements that include the precursor to the world- wide-web.

A human rights based approach

Ideological views across the spectrum on the role of the state and ownership of earnings dominate the debate about the economics of the individual and society. Why don’t we add a new ingredient: a Human Rights Based Approach? This approach emphasises economic, social and cultural rights with a legal framework for securing minimum standards of living, and obligations to progressively realise improvements as society becomes richer. “Minimum standard” doesn’t mean on the edge of starvation: it is based on a concept of human dignity. Independently of their moral underpinnings, fulfilling these rights is necessary if we are to maintain a participatory democracy. These rights are not important just for poor countries, a fact borne out by a new joint Scottish Government – civil society initiative launched at an Innovation Forum. You can watch the short video at Tackling Poverty through Human Rights.

The South African judges in the famous Grootboom Case put it well: our rights are indivisible and interdependent … without socio-economic rights we cannot enjoy any of our other rights. Bringing human rights into the debate might resonate to people across the political spectrum, and help improve the lives of those of us who can’t be, or don’t want to be, the next Alan Sugar. Perhaps it will also help us begin to see ourselves as indivisible and interdependent too.

emp is a legal consultant and commissioner at the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

She can be found Tweeting at @SLKemprights 


Photo credit: Andrey Mindryukov from Flickr