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Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive? (Essay at Defining Ideas) January 10, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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“Defining Ideas” has published an edited excerpt of Gordon Lloyd’s and my new book–released and available January 1.  It is too lengthy to reprint in full here, but here are the first few paragraphs and a link to the rest:

The famous philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” In order to assess the health, much less predict the future, of rugged individualism in America, it should help to recount briefly what it is and is not. President Obama, no great fan of rugged individualism, has acknowledged that it is nevertheless “in America’s DNA” and that it “defines America.” Reaching back to the founding, rugged individualism has defined American character and uniqueness. It has been described as the “master assumption” of American political and economic thought. The combination of individual liberty in America’s founding and the frontier spirit provided the rich soil in which it has grown and developed.

Equally, it seems important to note what American rugged individualism is not. It is not, as Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledged, the selfish, isolating self-absorption of the French individualisme, since Americans temper their individualism with other qualities such as pragmatism and a disposition toward forming voluntary associations. It is not a purely economic idea, as the Progressives and New Dealers suggested, since it is grounded in a political philosophy of individual rights. As Herbert Hoover, who coined the phrase “rugged individualism,” pointed out, it is not a laissez-faire, devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy for the wealthy since, in America, it is accompanied by equality of opportunity. It is not, as it is sometimes perceived to be, some form of selfishness or greed that demands it be regulated, presumably by government.

In order to evaluate the future of rugged individualism, it is also useful to review the environments in which it has fared well and those that have hampered and undermined it. In general, rugged individualism is closely tied to frontiers, not just frontiers of the Old West but economic, social, and political frontiers. Where there are new frontiers to conquer, Americans are more likely to launch out in a spirit of rugged individualism. Further, those political climates that tend to favor individual liberty have been most hospitable to rugged individualism. To put it another way, when the American tension that Tocqueville observed between equality and liberty tends toward liberty, rugged individualism has prospered. When the political climate has shifted more toward equality, it has not. Indeed, one could well argue that, since the rise of Progressivism and the New Deal in the early twentieth century, rugged individualism has been under rather steady attack and has often fought even to maintain a seat at the public policy table.

In order to undertake a balanced assessment of the future prospects for American rugged individualism, we should consider both reasons to be pessimistic as well as reasons to be optimistic about it. Such an evaluation might also indicate where supporters of rugged individualism might focus greater encouragement and resources, and where it seems important to stand and fight.

 

To read the rest of the essay:  http://www.hoover.org/research/rugged-individualism-dead-or-alive-0

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