Rugged Individualist or Cooperative Village?

The other day one of the blog comments cited a preference for even a “fake rugged individualist over some ‘it takes a village’ idiot,” and while I initially appreciated the sentiment, the comment got me to thinking, and the more I thought, the more I decided that the choice represented by the two alternatives was a false representation… and another example of the “either/or” polarization that infects our society today.

Why? By way of a slight digression, I’ll explain.

The recent history and culture of the United States as a European outshoot, short as it is, is strongly colored by the myth of the rugged individualist, the pioneer, the superiority of the individual entrepreneur, and a number of other idealized depictions of individual superiority over the group or the masses or the village.

But let’s look at a few aspects of those myths.  First of which, the majority of the conquest of the “new world” wasn’t accomplished by Europeans and their culture and tools, but by disease.  Second, individuals didn’t create all those superior weapons and tools that led to an industrial and military power by themselves.  The frontiersman with his trusty rifle, his saddle, etc., all the equipment that allowed the “conquest” of the Americas was in fact the product of the village, if you will, and the crafts and skills of those villages.  And many of the great inventions attributed to single individuals, such as the steamboat to Fulton, the steam engine to Watt, the airplane to the Wright brothers, electricity to Edison, and so forth, all could have been – and were in fact – accomplished by others at close to the same time.

The fact is that such developments are an outgrowth of the existing culture, and while it may take a bright individualist to make an advance, first, there must always be more than one such individual for the advance to be successful [more about this in a moment], and the culture must need and/or accept that advance.  Progress and success, if you will, require both the individualists and the culture or village.

In Ptolemaic Egypt, Hero [Heron] built what appears to haven been the first steam engine, as well as employed magnetism in a technical way and built a jet-like pump for fighting fires.  Yet the steam engine vanished from history and did not reappear for more than 1600 years. Similar advances occurred in early China, and, effectively, the culture turned its back on them. Being a genius with proven products wasn’t enough, and it never has been.

The term “rugged individualist” conjures the idea of the man or woman living apart from and independent of society, yet human beings cannot survive above the most primitive level without the support of and the products of society.  Likewise societies tend to languish, stagnate, and eventually collapse if they crush individuality and creativity.

A vital culture needs to support both genius and individuality and cooperative effort.  Without both, it has no future… and yet, today, all too many on the left denigrate the contribution of the outstanding individuals and all too many on the right denigrate the role of a productive and cooperative society.

6 thoughts on “Rugged Individualist or Cooperative Village?”

  1. Brian Kelman says:

    Your blog today brought to mind the old PBS series “Connections” hosted by James Burke. Everything and everyone is connected and sometimes genius is achieved by only looking at the old in a new way.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    The pendulum swings.

    Some of us think it’s swung way too far toward the collective, and needs to swing back again.

    A complication would be that the collective will have diluted any notion of individual _responsibility_ that may have once existed (and I think it must have to some degree, because if one imagines a time when people were less protected from consequences, too much lack of responsibility probably wouldn’t have been a survival trait). But any answer that sets up a central authority to dictate what form individual responsibility should take is sure to miss the point…which isn’t really even about whether or not there are absolutes of morality and responsibility, but rather, that they cannot possibly be transformative unless they’re freely chosen.

    Obviously a very few basics (don’t murder or assault, don’t steal, don’t cheat) can’t be left totally to individual choice. But by the time one elaborates on all of those to the point of making any failure to live up to some extremist vision of healthy components of Gaia into some sort of crime, one will have long since stifled any semblance of liberty.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    I’d add that there was quite a bit that an individual could do; there were books such as “A Dictionary of Everyday Wants: Containing Twenty Thousand Receipts in Nearly Every Department of Human Effort” (date 1872), which covered just about everything one might need to know to run a remote homestead. Clearly some trade for those tools which required scarce materials to make (metals, mainly) would be necessary. And while anyone can put together the equivalent of a picnic table and benches, or even crude bed frames and cabinets, more serious furniture making (let alone something like barrels) are specialized skills. Oh, and don’t take the medical procedures in that book too literally; they had some idea of transfusions but not of blood types, and the author (whose background is a mystery) was a bit behind and apparently hadn’t heard of contemporary work by the likes of Pasteur.

    I’ll admit to too much of a liking for gadgets and comforts, and too much of an addiction to data overload, to want to live that way except perhaps very briefly as an optional adventure. But I’d like to think I could probably do it if I had to, and that a bunch of folks that think “community organizer” is a real job ought to do something like that for awhile, just to get back to a less abstract grasp of reality.

  4. Joe says:

    Usually when two sides of an argument have a point, it’s the distinction one is arguing about that is wrong. The “pendulum swings” argument claims the distinction is valid, which I would dispute.

    My distinction would be between we can behave rationally (put our interests to one side and use our full capacities to determine the best solution for ourselves and the systems of which we are part) or whether we just optimize our own individual short term gain. You can be a rugged individualist without being egocentric. While I believe in Darwinian evolution, the whole point of having a brain is that it makes us more adaptable than the blind watchmaker — able to see beyond our own petty desires.

    @ R. Hamilton: I find the claim that thinking of others stifles liberty quite outrageous. If you came and peed on my house, you might not be stealing, murdering or cheating, but you would be impinging on my freedom. I see little difference between that and climate change destroying my crops, ozone killing more people than 9/11 per year, or the cancers that are guaranteed to occur due to Fukushima’s shoddy maintenance. I would argue the diametric opposite to you, yet I believe very strongly in individual liberty — mine and that of others, but not at the cost of mine or others.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    I don’t claim that thinking of others _necessarily_ stifles liberty. But if you want people to take every action with all possible repercussions in mind, they very quickly won’t be able to take any action at all that hasn’t been approved of by some board of experts. Single payer plans essentially threaten to do that to medical care, since there will never be enough affordable to satisfy the demand without some form of rationing.

    And when you heap on top of that dramatic or highly speculative extrapolations of the harm caused by e.g. consuming fossil fuels (when there’s no other alternative short of fission that is capable of meeting the level of demand for energy at present, so you must be expecting a few hundred million people to give up their lifestyle in favor of some sort of pastoral – but chemical-free, of course – one, that probably couldn’t sustain most of them at all, let alone with anything like the convenience and flexibility they’ve grown accustomed to)…well, I think it is very easy to cross the line between reasonable responsibility to one another and tyranny.

    It’s all in how far you carry it. As long as you have to prove that a _specific_ act by a _specific_ person harmed _specific_ other person(s), there’s some balance. Once you start making squishy assumptions that all instances of certain behavior do harm to large classes of persons, you’ve started on a downhill slope that can only run amok if not stringently limited.

    I think the advantage of erring on the side of individualism – truly individual, not necessarily maximized megacorp profits – is the same advantage as with genetic diversity; that the sheer volume of trial and error will ensure some level of success, whereas conformity would lead to either greater risk of massive failure, or the institutionalizing of the decision of who to keep and who to get rid of.

    Understand me clearly: I think that in the long run, sustainable is the only way to go. But I think that’s not yet economical or scalable, and that some ways of pushing it before it’s ready will do more harm than good and only delay long-term solutions. Corn ethanol is nuts; tears up the soil, consumes too much for the energy produced, etc. ADM makes a killing, everyone else loses. Sugar cane works in more tropical climates, but not in the temperate zones. Biodiesel can do some, but there isn’t enough waste organic oil on the planet to replace petroleum. I like the idea of algae, fed mostly with captured CO2 and sunlight, but that won’t work everywhere, would be very expensive at present, and has scalability issues because it needs a lot of separate smaller systems so that inevitable contamination won’t knock too much offline. Hydrogen: storage is a killer; it’s the most energy-dense chemical fuel by weight, but the _least_ dense by volume. Batteries: not there yet except for short range city use, and probably toxic. Hybrids: still not competitive on either initial cost or life-cycle cost. Public transportation will never be a universal solution (not at any reasonable cost and level of service). And of course batteries, hydrogen, and electric public transportation all assume that the electricity generation is significantly cleaner than the output of an exhaust pipe (which is mostly water vapor and CO2, and incidentally, the water vapor is actually more of a greenhouse gas than the CO2).

    When a plugin-capable hybrid can, without penalizing a conventional vehicle nor subsidizing the hybrid, compete on initial cost, lifecycle cost, performance, and range, I’ll cheerfully consider one next time thereafter that I’m up for buying a vehicle; but not until then. I don’t want something that’s only effective as a specialized short-range low-capacity alternative.

    So renewable and pristine may be a wonderful long-term objective, but we need a few breakthroughs before much progress can be made approaching it, unless you’re willing to have people be coerced either with force or economics to change. I will resist any form of coercion, with force proportionate to that applied against me, not least because I consider it also a public service to apply a little Jeffersonian fertilizer should it be truly necessary.

  6. Joe says:

    @ R.Hamilton said “It’s all in how far you carry it. As long as you have to prove that a _specific_ act by a _specific_ person harmed _specific_ other person(s), there’s some balance. Once you start making squishy assumptions that all instances of certain behavior do harm to large classes of persons, you’ve started on a downhill slope that can only run amok if not stringently limited.”

    This is indeed difficult. Systemic responsibility is hard to pin down. Let’s says Juergen is a train driver. Juergen always loved trains since a young kid and it’s his life dream come true. However a new government comes in, and Juergen must now transport people in cattle cars to Auschwitz. If Juergen quits he may lose his job, not be able to support his family, go to prison, and someone else will do it anyway. Is Juergen partially responsible for the holocaust?

    I would argue yes because if he knew he was responsable and would be held to account, he and others like him would resist evil orders. Your position argues no, he isn’t.

    It’s even more difficult now, since one genuinely does not know the cost of one’s purchases on the environment and on others. Expensive iPads are assembled by poorly paid people, really? But if we all believed we were indeed responsable we would require those that sold us these goods to be forthright about their production. This would be good for us: my pension fund manager may be the same person asking my employer to cut costs (me) to raise share prices to raise the value of my pension.

    As each of us gains more power due to technology, I believe more and more acts will be systemic, hard to pin down, but real nevertheless. We cannot bury our heads in ignorance.

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