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Individualism Fosters Virtue In Ways That Government Cannot (Washington Examiner) September 15, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

While COVID-19 attacks our immune systems and our economy, it also gives rise to attacks on American individualism. If the pandemic is spreading here, many argue, rugged individualism is at fault. It keeps people from wearing masks, prevents them from helping each other, and is downright dangerous.

Typical is a recent opinion piece by Leah Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, claiming that rugged individualism “is what’s killing us now.” The problem is that this understanding of rugged individualism is deeply flawed, making a political cartoon out of a fundamental and longstanding philosophy.

The term “rugged individualism” was coined by Herbert Hoover during his 1928 presidential campaign — not, as many have suggested, in response to the Great Depression the following year. Hoover had returned from carrying out food relief in Europe following World War I, struck by the several “-isms” that were taking over that continent: socialism, fascism, and communism.

By contrast, he said, we have the system of rugged individualism coupled with equality of opportunity, which we need to preserve. Importantly, rugged individualism is not a synonym for selfishness. The individual is the starting point from which one is free to join churches, community groups, and all kinds of associations that collaborate. Individuals form governments, not vice versa.

Even the hardy pioneers living on the frontier, often held up as the classic image of rugged individualism, cooperated with each other, traveling together in wagon trains for safety and helping one another build houses, schools, and towns. As the French journalist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his classic book Democracy in America, Americans were more given to associations than any people on Earth.

Now, from an unlikely place, has come a vivid description of modern-day rugged individualism and its continuing place in American culture. The Los Angeles Times recently shared the story of Juan “Spanky” Ramirez and his fellow lowriders cruising Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Crime, graffiti, and trash had begun to appear along the boulevard during the pandemic, so Ramirez and company decided to do something about it.https://ebec5994e18940b8e7bf59e7bf863203.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

The lowriders called for a voluntary boycott of the boulevard — no cruising for a month. There was nothing mandatory about it, just a call to do what they thought was right voluntarily. As Ramirez put it, “We don’t need law enforcement to tell us when something’s wrong. Whatever happens on Whittier Boulevard, it’s our history.” Let’s do what’s best for the community, Ramirez said, adding, “If we do it together willingly, then everything works out a lot better.”

Would anyone dare say this kind of rugged individualism was selfish? No, this was community action at its finest. Was it an effort to undermine the government? Hardly, as the police were delighted to have leadership from the community. Instead of waiting for government to solve a problem, a few leaders of the community stepped up to address it themselves. It is precisely the kind of individual initiative and action that, joining with others, can solve problems more effectively than law enforcement or government can do.

Years ago, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield described moving into a new campus building where, along with lights and drapes that functioned on their own, the toilets also flushed automatically. At first, those things seemed like nice conveniences, but then, Mansfield asked, are we better off developing technologies and laws that control us rather than developing our own virtue? Is it better to have toilets that flush on their own or to live in a community where we develop an ethic of flushing our own toilets?

Rugged individualism acknowledges a proper role for government and technology, but then, it leaves ample room for individual decisions and voluntary action. Where would we be in the pandemic crisis if we did not have individual scientists and companies racing to find a vaccine and a cure? How about all those restaurants that, without a government mandate, started serving take-out and delivery options, or the architects and seamstresses who converted their businesses to make essential protective gear and masks?

There is a proper role for government, of course. However, even in a crisis, we must leave room for rugged individualism to do its good work and allow us to build communities of virtue, like the lowriders in East Los Angeles.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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