The Myth of the Rugged Individual: It is Time to Let It Go

In explaining her rationale against issuing a stay-at-home order, Gov. Kristi Noem told reporters “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety.” (CNN April 4, 2020 “Why these 8 Republican governors are holding out on stay-at-home orders”)

“It comes to this. We are to take the responsibility of acting as though the epidemic were plague.” This way of putting it met with general approval. “It doesn’t matter to me,” Rieux said, “how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.” (Albert Camus, The Plague p. 49)

Camus’ words, written a good 60 years ago, sum up where we are in the face of this pandemic. We dicker about words, about who was — is — and should be responsible. We have even debated the extent to which this pandemic is a pandemic or simply something else, something less virulent, something akin to a bad case of the flu. We invoke the Federalist Papers and find ourselves, 250 years after the matter was theoretically settled, debating state’s rights versus a strong, central government.

And all the while, people are dying. The medical system is crumbling. Our economy has been toppled. We are consumed with uncertainty and anxiety.

Yet the debate continues.

Before I pen another word about this topic — since I am quite secure in the overwhelming likelihood that both “the Right” and “the Left” will mistake what I am about to say as an endorsement of the polar opposite position from their own — I am neither Republican nor Democrat. I believe firmly that the American political system is irrevocably broken. We see that as this pandemic threatens to gut our country, shred our economy, and stake the dead like so many cords of wood ready for a slow burn. The American political system is broken, as we shall see, for many reasons, not the least of which is that neither party, given their ideological heritage, can fathom the fact that the world in which they were born died long ago.

A few days ago, as I was doing research for one of the classes I teach at a local state university, I discovered that the phrase “rugged individual” was invoked by Herbert Hoover as the economy crumbled around him. Americans, Hoover argued, would never stand for government interference in their lives. Americans could — and would — take care of themselves.

Well, Americans couldn’t. And didn’t.

It struck me as fascinating that the more I read about Hoover, the more he seemed like a prototype of Trump. Both had no governmental experience. Both were wealthy, assuming Trump really is, and both were ultimately driven by the need to satisfy their egos. In Hoover’s case, an ego nearly as large as he was physically. Hoover, like Trump, was lauded as he entered the Oval Office as a business man who would turn government around, end waste, and bring prosperity. Well, considering he did nothing as the country descended into chaos and depression, we can clearly see that his presidency fell well short of expectations.

While Trump hasn’t exactly argued that Americans can and will take care of themselves during this pandemic, his continual divestiture of his responsibility to the states is tantamount to the same thing. I find it interesting that tax cuts for the wealthy are in the federal interest. Stopping a pandemic that will kill upwards of 240,000, if we are lucky, is not. In fact, if Hoover were in the White House, I believe he would have said the same thing Trump said when he was confronted with the fact that NBA stars and wealthy Americans received coronavirus tests while the rest of us could not. I don’t remember Trump’s exact words, but they were along the idea that “that’s life.”

It might be life in a country that courts economic discrimination, but it isn’t moral or ethical.

But this is a symptom, not the cause, nor the solution.

Wealthy people, in the Land of Opportunity, embody the myth of the rugged individual. They made it. They took care of themselves. Yanked themselves up by their bootstraps, worked their asses off…. They don’t need us. They don’t need the government, until their business needs a bailout, and they don’t like being taxed to support “us lazy people.” The implication is that if you are poor, can’t afford medical care, it is your fault. You are lazy, haven’t worked hard enough, aren’t willing to pay the price required to be successful. We just aren’t rugged enough.

If you don’t hear Horace Greeley’s immortal words, “Go West, young man,” here, then you aren’t listening.

But this isn’t 1860. As I tell my students: Pack everything you own into your car. Head West. When you get to Nevada, or Oklahoma or wherever, pull off the road, put a stack in the ground, and start a homestead. See how long you last before you are either in jail for taking someone’s land, or, dead from starvation. Or, you might get shot.

I am not just saying this. Bracketing, for a moment, the possibility that you would be arrested for squatting on someone’s land, there are other, tangible, reasons why the myth of the rugged individual is dead. To begin with, in 1811, after a number of years on the rise, the percentage of people living on farms in this country hit 84%. In that same year, only 10% of the population was urban, and they were often wealthy. By 1900, that number dropped to 41%. By the middle of the last decade, that number dropped to 2%.

Why is this important? Because the myth of the rugged individual presupposes that we — each one of us — can be self-sufficient. When 84% of our population lived on a farm, perhaps that was true. We no longer do. Further, the myth of the rugged individual fails to take into account the fact that no one can be self-sufficient in an urban environment. Humans in cities are by definition dependent. That dependency isn’t just on the corner grocery store, or pharmacy. It is a real, organic, dependence on government to deliver survival — including water, power, trash removal, security, and yes, health care and education.

With some of the comments made by Rand Paul fresh in my mind, there is another important, salient, problem with the Myth of the Rugged Individual, and it comes down to the assertion that we have a right to be unhealthy. I can choose to do whatever I want, be that choice healthy or not. So, if I want to smoke, I can and will and no one, especially not the government can take that freedom away. My Body. My choice. Hm. Sounds familiar.

But before I go down that road, we need to remember that this isn’t 1859. John Stuart Mill has been dead for a long time, and the Libertarian Right and Conservative Right fail to understand that Mill’s contention that government exists only to provide redress for wrongs or for the prevention of harm only works when your nearest neighbor is at least half a mile away. It doesn’t work in a high rise in New York in which several thousand people live.

The fundamental flaw is this: Unless you live on a farm in Iowa and produce everything you need, including all the energy you consume, all actions have social implications and consequences. There are no socially neutral actions. To argue otherwise is to close one’s eyes to the reality of death in New York, Boston, LA, and elsewhere. People like Rand Paul who assert that they have a right to do as they please, including a right to be unhealthy, have an impact on everyone else around them. Even if, for a moment, I concede that he or she has such a right, and I don’t think anyone does, then there still remains the question of whether or not choosing a fundamentally unhealthy life style is moral. The last time I checked, with the exception of situational ethics, no ethical or moral system, not even Utilitarianism, argues that you do. Even in the solipsistic world of Utilitarianism, such a decision violates the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. In the end, we all pay for selfish decisions in the form of higher health care costs and in terms of limited access to health care resources.

I find it ironic, not logically inconsistent, that Rand Paul and the Conservatives won’t spend money on education and health care, but they will on defense. Why? Ah, they can’t protect themselves against the hordes entering this country through open borders, so, of course, the government must step in the prevent this harm.

But 240,000 people dying from a badly managed pandemic? Well, no government intervention required.

Mr. Paul has all the money he needs to take care of himself. Everyone else? Well, they are a drain on resources any way. They are weak, lazy, shiftless.

And there’s more. As critical of Darwin as the Religious Right is, the truth is that anthropological research supports much of what Darwin argued — and here I am not referring to evolution. I am referring to Darwin’s discussion of the origins of complex human societies through a process of social evolution. The concept of the rugged individual is contrary to human development (notice I avoided the word evolution) and to the subsequent development of complex societies. Darwin argued, and Fromm picked this idea up about 100 years later, that humans are unique among biological entities on this world because we do not adapt to the world. We adapt the world to our needs. That adaptation of the world to meet our needs makes us dependent upon each other whether we like it or not.

Morality, Darwin wrote, is born in the realization that our survival is dependent upon each one of us. This has been true from the formation of the first human family, and it is no less true now. Morality is part of that dependence.

However, Darwin missed the fact that the very science and technology we developed to adapt the world to our needs would eventually take away our sense of uniqueness. The modern cult of the individual is born here. If we don’t know who we are as a species, and I would argue we don’t, we seem unable to accept the fact that we are just another, albeit more complex species that evolved over millions of years, so have we turned to ourselves. To ourselves as individuals. I define myself. I choose what I want. I decide what makes me happy. What I define as good, is good for me, and you? Well, you can decide for yourself. Just don’t encumber or bother me.

In the absence of a common sense of who we are we descend into a world of moral relativity and a kind of vacuousness that reduces humans to objects. A world where value is arbitrarily set by conformance to a myth that was never real, save for a few like Trump who inherit wealth. For the rest of us, we have only each other, and what you do has a profound impact on me, as everything I do has on you.

When I look back on my life, one thing is clear. If everyone I encountered calculated my value, then I would have died long ago. Time after time, people who had no reason to care did. They chose to intervene when I faced death. Not because I was rich, not because I was self-sufficient. Not because I went to their country club. They intervened because I was human. The value we each bring to our society isn’t determined by our wealth, our power, our influence, or our religious or political beliefs. Our value is our shared humanity.

It is time to let go. Time to let go of the myth of the rugged individual.

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