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Rugged American Individualism Comes to the Rescue (Washington Examiner) April 9, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

While many wait and watch for government to solve the coronavirus problem, rugged American individualism is already hard at work — not just the labs and medical researchers that are working 24/7 on drugs to cure or prevent the disease but also the many individuals and companies that have quickly filled gaps and dislocations caused by the crisis.

Where would we be without creative types who turned their perfume companies and distilleries into manufacturers of hand sanitizer? Automobile companies have been retooled to produce ventilators, and architects are busily running their 3D printers to create face masks. Restaurants quickly reinvented themselves for takeout and more recently have provided needed produce and other grocery items to their neighborhoods. Everything from how we educate to how we conduct funerals is being reinvented on the fly.

Thank goodness for the speed and creativity of American individualism.

As Gordon Lloyd and I chronicled in our book Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?, rugged individualism had become a whipping boy until we needed it. It is often criticized as selfish and antiquated, an idea better suited to the frontier West than the complex and interdependent society of the modern world. But this caricature of rugged individualism is both inaccurate and unfair.

The term rugged individualism was coined by Herbert Hoover when he ran for president in 1928. Hoover had been a leading mining engineer and businessman in other countries before leading the food relief effort in Europe during and following World War I. He was shocked to see Europe succumbing to various forms of totalitarianism: communism, fascism, and socialism. When he returned home to the United States, he celebrated the uniquely American ideal of individualism in a powerful 1921 essay on the subject. America had prospered largely because of the energy unleashed by this doctrine, Hoover claimed.

Then, along came Franklin Roosevelt and the liberals who argued that with the closing of the American frontier, rugged individualism was no longer possible. People would now live in crowded cities, not on Western frontiers, and would need more government regulation. Rugged individualism had become, as one liberal of that time put it, ragged individualism — or as another said, a myth.

It turns out, however, that despite calls for its death or reports that it has already died, rugged individualism has survived. It is, as President Barack Obama acknowledged, part of America’s DNA. And it seems to come to the fore in especially powerful ways on new frontiers. It was rugged American individualism that helped the country survive World War II, as manufacturers, farmers, and households moved to support the war effort and to accept sacrifices at home. John F. Kennedy called for new creativity in space and elsewhere through his New Frontier. It has fueled the development of our present information economy.

And now, the coronavirus demands a new chapter of rugged individualism.

One misunderstanding about rugged individualism is that it stands against any form of community or collaboration. You need only look at the rugged individualism of the American frontier to see that is wrong. People formed wagon trains to travel together in greater safety. They settled in villages and towns. They helped each other build houses and establish churches. But this was done largely through voluntary efforts, not government mandates. It came out of the very spirit of American individualism.

We see this important voluntary and community side of rugged individualism today as well. People are wearing face masks and social distancing to protect not so much their own health as the well-being of others. Stores have established special hours for seniors and the most vulnerable. Caterers and generous individuals are delivering free meals, and hotels are providing rooms for healthcare workers. Neighborhood watch programs are being revitalized and created.

Like premature reports of Mark Twain’s death were, as he said, “greatly exaggerated,” we are fortunate that similar reports of the death of rugged individualism are also mistaken. Indeed, when the story of the COVID-19 crisis and recovery is written, rugged individualism should be a central hero.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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