Rugged Individualism is an American ideal. Extolled by generations as the most virtuous path, our rugged individualism suggests freedom and opportunity. But is it true, or is the dream simply propaganda?
What is Rugged Individualism
Rugged individualism is the American idea that every person is better on their own. Society’s rules only inhibit the true expression of freedom, and each man would fare better without them.
Rugged individualism is the ultimate embrace of personal freedom.
The Myth of Rugged Individualism
Although the idea of rugged individualism is oft celebrated in American culture, in reality, it’s nothing more than a myth. It’s an idea that sounds nice but doesn’t work in reality.
Here’s why dedication to rugged individualism isn’t as great as you think it would be.
Ignores Human Nature
Humans ascended the food chain for one main reason: our ability to cooperate. Cooperation, not individualism, built the pyramids. Collaboration put a man on the moon. Partnership created the world we enjoy today.
It’s unrealistic to assume any individual could achieve the same greatness that human cooperation can achieve. Nobody can know everything and do everything. We rely on each other for our success.
Rugged individualism is dishonest. Folks who claim they’re “self-made” use public roads, study at state-funded universities, and enjoy a modicum of peace because we pay a police force to protect and serve. They enjoy safe food and medicine due to the work of millions of government employees and researchers.
The only people who genuinely engage in rugged individualism are the homesteaders who build everything from scratch, but even they can rely on government services in natural disasters.
On the Backs of Others
Far too many proponents of rugged individualism refuse to consider all the shoulders they’ve stepped on to get where they are. How many men became millionaires because they relied on the unpaid domestic labor of their wives to raise their kids and maintain their homes? How many mediocre white people soared through the ranks, unhindered by competition due to racial bias? How many rich folks born with a silver spoon think they “worked hard” for that internship at their father’s company?
There are no limits to what we can do when we work together. However, the spirit of rugged individualism seeks to throw off the collective and do it all on your own. As the saying goes, you’ll go faster on your own, but you’ll go further together. We all lose out when everyone refuses to cooperate.
The idea that you can and should do everything alone causes individual trauma. We’re told we should be able to do it on our own, and when we ultimately fail, we blame ourselves, thinking we’re not good enough.
The harsh reality is that most people can’t do everything independently. We need farmers to grow our food, doctors to keep us well, and police officers to keep us safe.
Rugged individualism sees parents kicking their teenage children out of the house the second they turn 18. Parents think they did their part in raising the child, and they’re completely on their own as an adult.
It also sees fathers leave their children, refusing to pay child support because it’s “mom’s responsibility,” and kids leaving their parents to rot in state-run care facilities.
The entire community suffers from the quest for rugged individualism. In our every-man-for-himself system, neighbors no longer know each other. We don’t look after each other’s houses and property or visit when someone suffers a setback.
We all sit in isolation because we’re told we should be able to do it ourselves.
The quest for rugged individualism harms society as a whole. We can see it playing out in real-time with the rising cost of living. More and more Americans find themselves in hopeless situations, unable to make ends meet and unable to find any assistance. Millions of people are one emergency away from losing everything.
The situation is untenable. Our love affair with rugged individualism is destroying society.
But What About Freedom?
Folks confuse rugged individualism with freedom. The two are not the same. We can actually have individual freedom without celebrating rugged individualism as the epitome of accomplishment.
Society Needs Balance
In truth, very few people are on their own little islands. We rely on society, so society needs to balance individualism with what’s best for everyone.
People should be free to express themselves and worship how they choose, but they also must accept others who don’t share their values. The law must treat everyone equally, as should businesses seeking to engage in commerce with society.
Society and individualism don’t need to be at odds. We can create a world where individuality is celebrated for the betterment of society, not elevated above society.
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Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.