POV: What Is Capitalism?
by Ayn Rand | November-December 1965
In Pursuit of Wealth: The Moral Case for Finance
by Yaron Brook | September 30, 2017
Inequality Doesn't Matter If We’re All Paid According to the Value We Create
by Don Watkins | October 18, 2016
Who Cares about Inequality?
by Don Watkins | April 28, 2016
Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality
by Don Watkins | April 19, 2016
Economic Inequality Complaints Are Just A Cover For Anti-Rich Prejudice
by Don Watkins | April 14, 2016
Equality of Opportunity Doesn’t Exist in America — and That’s a Good Thing
by Don Watkins | April 06, 2016
Inherit The Wind . . . And Not Much Else
by Don Watkins | April 05, 2016
Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality
by Don Watkins | October 20, 2015
Religion in America
by The Editors | December 05, 2014
Religion vs. Freedom
by Onkar Ghate | December 03, 2014
Debate: “Inequality: Should We Care?”
by Yaron Brook | May 08, 2014
Economic Inequality: Who Cares?
by The Editors | March 25, 2014
Our Poverty Problem?
by Don Watkins | March 11, 2014
Is Inequality Fair?
by Yaron Brook | March 05, 2014
Government tries to do too much: Opposing view
by Don Watkins | January 26, 2014
“You didn’t build that,” conservative style
by Steve Simpson | December 09, 2013
Why Do 1.4 Million Americans Work At Walmart, With Many More Trying To?
by Doug Altner | November 27, 2013
Atlas Shrugged Is A Book About Pride In One’s Work, And The Success That Results
by Steve Simpson | November 08, 2013
Bernie Madoff, Steve Jobs, and Wall Street Greed
by Don Watkins | September 26, 2013
Justice Department should let US Airways & American Airlines merger proceed
by Tom Bowden | August 16, 2013
What Are The Search Results When You Google ‘Antitrust’?
by Tom Bowden | April 18, 2013
To Be Born Poor Doesn’t Mean You’ll Always Be Poor
by Yaron Brook | April 12, 2013
We Should Be Embarrassed by the Sequester Debate
by Yaron Brook | March 20, 2013
“Give Back” Is One of the World's Most Impoverishing Commands
by Yaron Brook | March 12, 2013
Capitalism in No Way Created Poverty, It Inherited It
by Yaron Brook | February 25, 2013
3 crucial lessons Ayn Rand can teach us today
by Yaron Brook | February 02, 2013
Capitalism without Guilt
by Yaron Brook | January 21, 2013
President Obama Duels With Ayn Rand Over What Makes America Great
by Don Watkins | October 29, 2012
Why Ayn Rand’s Absence From Last Thursday’s Debate Benefits Big Government
by Yaron Brook | October 15, 2012
The Virtue of Employee Layoffs
by Yaron Brook | September 06, 2012
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Paean to American Liberty
by Don Watkins | August 17, 2012
President Obama vs. My Grandfather
by Don Watkins | July 30, 2012
The Dog-Eat-Dog Welfare State Is Lose-Lose
by Don Watkins | July 12, 2012
Changing the Debate: How to Move from an Entitlement State to a Free Market
by Don Watkins | July 02, 2012
Private Equity Firms Want Acquisitions To Profit, Not Fold
by Doug Altner | June 05, 2012
Opposing view: Celebrate private equity
by Don Watkins | May 29, 2012
The “On Your Own” Economy
by Don Watkins | March 09, 2012
What's Really Wrong with Entitlements
by Don Watkins | February 21, 2012
Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand — Why Are You Still So Misunderstood?
by Don Watkins | February 02, 2012
America Before The Entitlement State
by Don Watkins | November 18, 2011
How Did Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged Predict an America Spinning Out of Control?
by Onkar Ghate | October 31, 2011
What We Owe Steve Jobs
by Don Watkins | October 06, 2011
What’s Missing From The Budget Debate
by Don Watkins | July 12, 2011
Does America Need Ayn Rand or Jesus?
by Onkar Ghate | June 29, 2011
When It Comes to Wealth Creation, There Is No Pie
by Yaron Brook | June 14, 2011
It’s Time To Kill The “Robin Hood” Myth
by Yaron Brook | May 06, 2011
Using Ayn Rand's Values to Create Competitive Advantage in Business
by John Allison | April 04, 2011
In Defense of Finance
by Yaron Brook | February 15, 2011
The Tea Party Will Fail — Unless it Fully Embraces Individualism as a Moral Ideal
by Tom Bowden | January 21, 2011
How About Tax Reparations for the Rich?
by Don Watkins | January 18, 2011
The Guilt Pledge
by Don Watkins | September 22, 2010
How To Succeed In Business: Really Try
by Don Watkins | September 13, 2010
The U.S. Anti-Business Epidemic
by Don Watkins | August 17, 2010
Atlas Shrugged’s Timeless Moral: Profit-Making Is Virtue, Not Vice
by Yaron Brook | July 20, 2010
Capitalism: Who Needs It — Ayn Rand and the American System
by Yaron Brook | June 09, 2010
Apple vs. GM: Ayn Rand Knew the Difference. Do You?
by Don Watkins | March 02, 2010
Commercialism Only Adds to Joy of the Holidays
by Onkar Ghate | December 18, 2009
Why is Ayn Rand Still Relevant: Atlas Shrugged and Today’s World
by Yaron Brook | August 10, 2009
The Corrupt Critics of CEO Pay
by Yaron Brook | May 2009
America’s Unfree Market
by Yaron Brook | May 2009
Energy at the Speed of Thought: The Original Alternative Energy Market
by Alex Epstein | Summer 2009
Is Rand Relevant?
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Stop Blaming Capitalism for Government Failures
by Yaron Brook | November 13, 2008
From Flat World To Free World
by Yaron Brook | June 26, 2008
Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company
by Alex Epstein | Summer 2008
The Right Vision Of Health Care
by Yaron Brook | January 08, 2008
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by Tom Bowden | November 20, 2007
The Influence of Atlas Shrugged
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The Morality of Moneylending: A Short History
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Say “No Way!” to “Say on Pay”
by Yaron Brook | May 22, 2007
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by Onkar Ghate | March 01, 2007
Pay Is Company’s Prerogative
by Yaron Brook | January 08, 2007
Religion and Morality
by Onkar Ghate | October 18, 2006
Net Neutrality vs. Internet Freedom
by Alex Epstein | August 16, 2006
Why Are CEOs Paid So Much?
by Elan Journo | May 11, 2006
To Outsource or to Stagnate?
by Onkar Ghate | August 01, 2004
Ayn Rand's Ideas — An Introduction
by Onkar Ghate | June 02, 2003
Capitalists vs. Crooks
by Elan Journo | July 22, 2002
Forgotten Heroes of 9/11
by Onkar Ghate | May 17, 2002
Religion vs. America
by Leonard Peikoff | 1986
The Sanction of the Victims
by Ayn Rand | November 21, 1981
Egalitarianism and Inflation
by Ayn Rand | 1974
The Moratorium on Brains
by Ayn Rand | November 14, 1971
What Is Capitalism?
by Ayn Rand | November 19, 1967
Is Atlas Shrugging?
by Ayn Rand | April 19, 1964
The Fascist New Frontier
by Ayn Rand | December 16, 1962
America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business
by Ayn Rand | December 17, 1961
The “New Intellectual”
by Ayn Rand | May 15, 1961
Capitalism vs. Communism
by Ayn Rand | 1961


Government And Business in Voice for Reason
Government & BusinessCapitalism

To Be Born Poor Doesn’t Mean You’ll Always Be Poor

by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins | April 12, 2013 |

Long after he had established himself as one of America’s leading businessmen, as well as history’s greatest steelmaker, Andrew Carnegie reflected that “We all live in the richest and freest country in the world, where no man is limited except by his own mental attitude and his own desires.”

At the time — a decade or so before the First World War — Carnegie’s attitude was nearly universal. In America, anyone could carve out a better life for himself if he worked hard. Today, Carnegie’s attitude is considered almost quaint.

Opportunity? Why, opportunity is a rare thing, and those Americans not lucky enough to be born with it should be given it at other people’s expense. Whether it’s an education, a job, a house, or a grant, opportunity is seen as something that others have to provide you with. If you don’t succeed, it’s not because you failed to capitalize on plentiful opportunities. It’s because you just weren’t one of the fortunate few.

Carnegie would have bristled. “My men began in exactly the same station in life which I occupied a few years ago,” Carnegie once observed. “They have had the same privileges for personal advancement that I had.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone beginning in a lower station. Carnegie had arrived in America, a twelve-year-old Scottish immigrant. With barely a penny to his family’s name, and with only five years of formal education behind him (“Lack of schooling is no valid excuse for failure; neither is an exhaustive schooling a guarantee of success,” he would later say), young Andrew went to work at a textile mill, twelve hours a day, for $1.20 a week.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The job gave Carnegie the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate his dedication to hard work. Very quickly he moved on and up: less than a year later he had secured a position at O’Reilly’s Telegraph Company, starting at more than twice what he had earned at the mill.

It was there that Carnegie’s rise began in earnest — not through some “lucky break” but through the habit Carnegie would later refer to as “going the extra mile.” Carnegie, still working incredibly long days, began going to work early in order to learn how to send and receive telegraph messages. He worked so hard at it that he could eventually take telegraph messages by ear rather than by transcribing the Morse code — a feat only two other people in America could perform.

That ability helped him gain the notice of Thomas A. Scott, a superintendent for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott hired the young man, still a teenager, to be his secretary and telegrapher at $35 a month — a tidy sum at the time and a far cry from $1.20 a week.

Carnegie soon became indispensable to Scott. The real turning point came not too long after he was hired. Carnegie was in the office alone one day when news came of a wreck on the Eastern Division. Rail traffic started backing up; instead of shrugging his shoulders and saying “not my job, not my problem,” Carnegie chose to take action. “Mr. Scott was not to be found,” he would later write. “Finally, I could not resist the temptation to plunge in, take the responsibility, give ‘train orders’ and set matters going.”

It was no easy decision. Although Carnegie had watched Scott deal with similar problems in the past, lives and property were at stake. “I knew it was dismissal, disgrace, perhaps criminal punishment for me if I erred. On the other hand, I could bring in the wearied freight-train men who had lain out all night. I could set everything in motion. I knew I could.” And he did, forging Scott’s signature and issuing orders until rail traffic was back to normal.

Thanks to Carnegie’s determination and hard-won abilities, Scott started opening doors for the young man and teaching him the skills he would need to succeed in business. Later, he would help Carnegie make his first investment, launching Andrew’s career as a capitalist in earnest. By 1860, at the age of 25, Carnegie was making almost $50,000 — more than enough to count himself as wealthy.

“Opportunity” means a set of circumstances in which a course of successful action is possible. Opportunity is abundant. What’s scarce is the willingness to take advantage of it. To the extent a country is free, a person with no money, no education, no connections can rise as far as his ability and ambition will take him. But developing ability and ambition is a challenging, uncomfortable, even scary process. Relatively few people in any era choose to do it, and as a result, few capitalize on life’s unlimited opportunities.

In Carnegie’s words, a “man may be born in poverty, but he does not have to go through life in poverty. He may be illiterate but he does not have to remain so. But . . . no amount of opportunity will benefit the man who neglects or refuses to take possession of his own mind power and use it for his own personal advancement.”

That was what led Carnegie to success: the constant use of his mind in pursuit of a better life. Whether he was learning a new skill, taking decisive action in an emergency, or forging the most innovative and efficient steelmaking company in the world, the commitment to following the judgment of his reasoning mind was the only opportunity he needed.

That — the willingness to think — is something no one else can give you.

About The Authors

Yaron Brook

Chairman of the Board, Ayn Rand Institute

Don Watkins

Former Fellow (2006-2017), Ayn Rand Institute