Rugged Individualism Myth

2393488792_ce534644d8I grew up immersed in locally based politics. Most often this was expressed as us versus them in regard to people who showed any signs of being politically progressive. We felt that our group had a franchise on moral truth.

The key word here is felt. We weren’t doing a very good job of thinking. Our intentions may have been noble, but our views were skewed locally and our antagonistic posture imposed a greater emotional tax on us than it did on the ones we opposed. Unfortunately this ethos is still pervasive in America.

Over the years, I’ve learned that digging deep beneath conventional textbook history is the best chance we have to create enough dissonance in our minds to rethink antisocial political attitudes that are based entirely on feelings. When we do that, it becomes clear that mainstream Americans celebrate a past that didn’t happen as is commonly believed, a West that never was, and an economy that doesn’t work as promoted. After all, much of what we believe about ourselves is based upon what we’ve been told happened historically.

In the early days of radio and television, limited transmission focused public attention and gave everyone something in common to talk about. Today, people use technology to switch between gadget-driven isolation and ideological echo chambers.

In a little over a century, we have gone from a strong ethos of self-restraint to one of self-indulgence and instant gratification. Even so, the nineteenth-century Emersonian idea of self-reliance remains a very important part of our folklore. Self-reliance is an individual aspiration to be encouraged because, when it is genuine and not hype, it is the communal grease of authentic guidance that can make the wheels of cooperation turn without squeaking bitterness and resentment.

That said, the Horatio Alger notion of widespread success being mostly due to rugged individualism is a myth. The American frontier did indeed include lots of hard-working individuals, but by today’s standards, this epoch was far more socialistic than is portrayed in popular culture, especially by Tea Party conservatives.

Socialism in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a movement fueled by despair and by people like writer Jack London, who sought to stop the savage exploitation of the working poor. The term socialist was always treated as pejorative, but it didn’t become radioactive until the Cold War. As a result, it still evokes an irrational and overly emotional response, regardless of the context.

The phrase “We the people” in our Constitution is socialistically aspirational because the implication is that we are all in this thing called America together. The Cold War, however, overtly prejudiced us against those things we depend on collectively by associating them with an enemy considered diabolical. The experience rendered millions of our citizens incapable of stilling their emotions long enough to reason with any sense of objectivity about anything that appears to be tainted by association with our former nemesis.

And yet, those things that make our lives both possible and worthwhile—like our military, Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration, and our legal, regulatory, transportation, and postal systems—are overt acts of social cooperation. Giving a community control over aspects of the production of things that affect their daily lives is not an evil act. Moreover, our military makes it clear that a sense of patriotism more powerful than self-interest is commonplace in public institutions.

Federal funding was the real pay-dirt of the American frontier, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were. Frontier settlers owed their very existence to huge federal land grants, railroad expansion, and many other government actions taken to seed prosperity.

Settlers could get a 160-acre homestead for as little as ten dollars. Sharing work and tools with neighbors was a predominant way of life. Even volunteers for civic projects expected to be compensated by the government. Most of the families that were isolated and truly alone ended their adventure in failure.

In 1945, another massive expansion of government spending combined with high taxes made it possible for record numbers of people to enter the middle class. Rural electrification, construction of the Interstate Highway System, the GI Bill, the FHA, and many other programs like them made America the envy of the world. For lack of a better term, let’s call these historical occurrences facts.

It is also indisputable that some of our highest rates of economic growth occurred during a period of high taxes. And yet, no matter how many times these historical occurrences are mentioned, those who would rather not believe it choose not to.

When an ethos of self-indulgence overrides self-restraint, the goodwill necessary to continue the cooperation that made this country a place of envy disintegrates. When you add the ethnocentric impulse to believe that one’s group is special and that most others are undeserving, the result is an us-versus-them mentality by an opposition so emotionally enraged that they would rather shut down the government than cooperate.

Some of our most successful corporations reward their permanent employees with wages so low that they expect taxpayers to subsidize them with welfare and food stamps. This is not an exercise of freedom; it’s more feudalistic than capitalistic, and the practice must stop. Any business that relies on social contempt so that the public will turn a blind eye to the institutionalization of poverty doesn’t deserve to survive.

Our social relations are problematic because we are a tribal species. The cooperation necessary to function successfully as a sovereign nation depends upon how big and how diverse a tribe our citizens are willing to accept. That’s what a civic education in American idealism is supposed to achieve. In a nutshell, our ideals are supposed to trump our genes and tribalistic selfishness. Our common allegiance is supposed to supersede our local differences.

If social relations were software, core American ideals would be a virus patch for the ethnocentric tribal bug most commonly expressed thoughtlessly as them. That was the hope and the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it’s the affirming value of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Allowing ruthless politicians to provoke us emotionally so that we view those with opposing political opinions as the embodiment of evil is egregiously self-destructive. Both conservative and liberal values are crucial for attaining and sustaining democracy. Cooperation is just as important as self-interest, and in many cases much more so.

Charles Hayes“We the people” is the founding principle of the American tribe. It is nothing to be ashamed of or squeamish about. If it’s not a social aspiration, what is? If not “we the people,” then who or what is more important? Politicians who forget the people they are supposed to represent and citizens who are easily distracted by divisive politics and fail to hold their representatives accountable pose the greatest threat to America’s future.

Charles Hayes
Self University


  1. Ryder says

    This is a reasonable article… rather fuzzy for Mr. Hayes…

    so I heap praise on his tone.

    I take exception with one statement though:
    “Some of our most successful corporations reward their permanent employees with wages so low that they expect taxpayers to subsidize them with welfare and food stamps.”

    This is not honest.

    The American public, through representation, have set a legal minimum wage with the FULL EXPECTATION that this exact wage will be paid to some, and perhaps many, workers. Presumably “wages so low”, meets the standard set by government, so is, by definition…. quite alright. How bad are we to heap scorn on companies that meet federal requirements? But the next part… that such companies expect taxpayers to subsidize workers… that’s the most dishonest part.

    Companies have been INFORMED that federal law provide useful benefits that in some cases can assist their workers… They don’t *expect* it. They were TOLD that is was true, by the federal government.

    This was set up by us. You and me. We elected people to artificially set a minimum wage, and we elected people to set up various benefits… that can even be paid to those earning minimum wage. Why we would do this is another matter…. but fact is, we did.

    If we’re not grown up enough to take responsibility for the world we’ve created, then we’re probably not responsible enough to criticize those that have to work within it.

    Oh, and by the way… the minimum wage is still ZERO. And it will always be so.

    • JoeWeinstein says

      Mr Ryder, you raise the issue, so I must ask: just who is not being honest here?

      Arguably, as you write, many of us in ‘the American public’ may have ‘full expectation’ that many workers will be paid no more than the legal minimum wage. (At least in a year when that wage has just been adjusted to reflect cost-of-living changes.)

      However we certainly do NOT expect that workers who have been around long enough to be ‘permanent’ will continue to be paid no more than the minimum.

      It’s reasonable – not dishonest at all – for Mr Hayes to infer that companies which deliberately pay less than adequate (even if legal) wages to workers are thereby expecting, indeed counting on, taxpayers to subsidize those workers.

      • Ryder says

        I don’t know if the concept of a “permanent” worker has any meaning… a “permanent” fast food worker or “bag boy” makes no sense to me. Jobs at the bottom are good starting jobs. Seeking to hold them permanently seems irrational to me.

        Since “less than adequate” is entirely subjective, there’s not much point in addressing that, except to say, that if it’s truly an inadequate wage, then nobody would be working at that wage since it is a voluntary arrangement.

        If a wage is legal, and agreed to by both parties, then by definition, it is adequate.

        As far as corporations expecting the Federal, State and Local governments to follow the law… well, don’t we all expect that? I sure do.

        We have made laws that allow us to deliver benefits to people, even when they are employed. We did that. On purpose. Let’s not have the bad taste to complain about a system working as we designed it…

        • JoeWeinstein says

          Well, ‘we’ didn’t all design the system. Others designed it in our name.

          But let’s grant the possibility that ‘we’ did design the system. All the more reason why it doesn’t make sense to call Hayes ‘dishonest’ when he assumes that savvy businessmen are counting on and using this system, indeed relying on it so that otherwise inadequate company payments to workers will nonetheless support those workers when supplemented by public assistance. Indeed, if the entrepreneur is truly rational, this reliance should consciously enter his business plan.

          • Ryder says

            “We” is “the people” in this context. Our system favors the majority, so unless you are against a democratic republic…

            Since when does knowing how society is intended to work suddenly qualify as “savy”? Hell, the poorest and most uneducated among us know that welfare benefits exist… most especially they do. Nice attempt to spin though. It’s great to hear progressives trying to convince us that businesses shouldn’t give information to employees that can improve their lives… especially information about progressive policy.

            Amazing times.

            • JoeWeinstein says

              You don’t like the word ‘savvy’? For me, all that word refers to is ‘having and using knowledge’ – but you may have other thoughts in mind. So OK, let’s use another word or phrase, e.g. ‘reasonable’. .

              Apart from word-games, I must renew my simple question: why attribute ‘dishonesty’ to Hayes’ noticing that some business folk take advantage of welfare laws? – especially laws which embody what you yourself insist are everybody’s ‘expectations’ – and so presumably should be part of a good businessman’s stock of knowledge and expectations too?

              I have actually either agreed with or anyhow welcome other points that you have raised – but I am baffled as to why Hayes’ observation should be called ‘dishonesty’.

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