10/26/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

The Perfectly Self-Made Man

Throughout the month of October, Mitt Romney has used the presidential debates to execute a pivot from "severely conservative" ideologue to empathic middle-class champion, and polls have shown his affectations to be effective.

But it would be wise for middle class voters to remember exactly what separates them from the Republican candidate in his own view. Is his success infinitely replicable, or do some have an easier road to fortune than others? How are millions earned and why are they not earned by everyone?

For answers to those questions, refer to the infamous video clandestinely taped during a fundraiser and uncovered by Mother Jones magazine in September. "Everything that Ann and I have, we have -- we earned the old fashioned way," he says. "I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America. I'll tell ya, there is -- 95 percent of life is set up for you if you're born in this country."

At the time, these remarks were overshadowed by what was dubbed Mr. Romney's dismissal of the nearly half of American citizens who pay no income tax and by his blithe appraisal of the Israel-Palestine conflict as something that's "going to remain an unsolved problem." But they are symptomatic of a delusional, self-aggrandizing arrogance that has infected modern conservatism and fueled its infatuation with private business. More than the 47 percent riff, which has been both valiantly debunked and largely overblown given that it came in the context of voting patterns and cannot justifiably be called an outright "dismissal" of half the country any more than could Mr. Obama's 2008 "guns and religion" gaffe, Mr. Romney's refusal to consider himself anything other than an entirely self-made man offers a glimpse into the secret inner chamber -- thought by many not to exist at all -- in which he harbors his convictions.

Prominent among them is the convenient lie that success is entirely and exclusively a product of effort. The rich are simply the hardest workers. Implicit in this Randian fantasy is the assumption that the poor are lazier and less deserving than the heroic captains of industry and finance.

It is this lie that turned President Obama's comments about the relationship between business and public services -- which would have been obvious to the point of banality if not for the Republican Party's insistence on mythologizing private enterprise -- into a "We Built It"-themed circus act during the Republican National Convention.

It is this lie that allows Mitt Romney to tell a room full of the fantastically wealthy that success is essentially guaranteed to the American-born. And it is this lie that allows him to believe that his Ivy League background and his accumulated millions have nothing to do with the fact that his father was the president of American Motors Corporation and the Governor of Michigan.

This is not to detract from the accomplishments of the rich. It would be foolish to believe that Mitt Romney could have earned two advanced degrees from Harvard or made lucrative investments at Bain Capital without rigorous effort and earned acumen.

But it would be equally as foolish to believe that, in a country where a child is born addicted to opiates every hour, the road to success is not paved with the help of circumstance and good fortune.

To take a less extreme example than drug-addicted newborns, consider the following: I grew up one house down from my closest childhood friend, Andrew. I was the son of a history professor; by the time I was in high school I had visited half of the countries in Europe and lived in Spain for two years. I was close to fluent in Spanish and I had spent almost every morning since middle school listening to my father deliver speeches about the Iliad or the Haitian Revolution over breakfast.

By the time Andrew was in high school, his father was unemployed and addicted to prescription painkillers because of an old back injury. His mother held her job but it wasn't enough to make ends meet, so he spent his afternoons pushing shopping carts around the parking lot of the local supermarket for close to minimum wage, surrendering his money to his increasingly impoverished parents at the end of every pay period. By the time Andrew's mom and dad had decided to leave suburban New York for Florida, he was living on his own. They stopped by his apartment and stole some appliances on their way out of town.

Both Andrew and I wanted to go to college. One of us did, the other didn't. If Mitt Romney can guess which was which -- and I'd bet he can -- he should rethink his idea of the perfectly self-made man.