Rugged Individualism

Conservatives tend to be fond of the myth of rugged individualism. So does a certain small subset of fantasy and science fiction writers. The irony of “rugged individualism” is that no individual will long survive out in the wilderness or in the middle of his or her thousand acre spread without the fruits and results of human concentration and cooperative effort.

Even the frontiersmen and mountain men required the products of a citified culture. They didn’t personally forge their rifles, piece by piece, or tan the leather and carve the frame for their saddles, or cast the bullets for their weapons (well, perhaps a few did). They didn’t forge their axes and knives. And against all that city-built technology, agrarian and indigenous cultures didn’t stand a chance.

It’s no accident that the far less cooperative Neanderthals died out. Despite having what appears to have been equivalent cognitive skills and greater physical strength; they couldn’t compete and survive against the fractious but cooperative homo sapiens. Economists and historians have long known that innovations come out of cities and communities, not from lone individuals or single families living alone. Even with modern technology, single family farms struggle…and they certainly don’t create and mass-produce new technologies.

The tiger is the most fearsome of solo predators, certainly an animal analogue to the mythical rugged individualist. A single unarmed human being doesn’t stand a chance against a tiger, but tigers are an endangered species.

And for all the exaltation of great inventors and creators, the vast majority of them were actually only improving earlier and cruder devices in a form of competitive cooperation, hoping to make a better device, and thereby a better life. Sometimes, they even stole each other’s ideas, but they couldn’t have done that without a community from which to steal. History shows that societies that reward cooperative-creators, and, yes, sometimes idea/device thieves, tend to progress and thrive.

So why is there all the nostalgia, all the conservative support, for rugged individualism? Why do so many support the myth of rugged individualism? Why all the ridicule for the idea that it takes a village to raise a child? Why doesn’t anyone champion productive, if competitive, cooperation? Why do so many Americans revere “rugged individualism” and reject the idea of a competitive (if sometimes cut-throat) but cooperative society when that society has created so much for so many?

9 thoughts on “Rugged Individualism”

  1. Grey says:

    As for why the conservative support, my hot take is that it’s in their interest to promote ‘rugged individualism’ because true believers can be expected to align with and back conservative interests: Low taxes and no government (regulatory) interference. Really summarizing here, but:

    If you are supposed to ‘go it alone’ and ‘take responsibility for your self’, then you won’t expect government support to be available, particularly for things that can be painted as the result of bad choices or morality (e.g., unemployment, poor housing etc.).

    Likewise, ‘don’t tell me what to do’ / ‘don’t tread on me’ flows into support for a low-regulatory/passive government.

    Of course, another cynical observation is that it costs a lot of money to be a rugged individualist. Pick any right-wing rally involving the carport commando -types, and do the math on how many paychecks they dropped on their rugged look with conservative lifestyle companies.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Consequences aren’t a moral judgement, they’re just what happens when you don’t have or don’t exercise what it takes to survive. Nobody says that the genuinely compassionate can’t voluntarily assist others. But anyone that thinks we should all be COMPELLED to be in it together is in my arrogant opinion, not compassionate at all, just either lazy or pursuing power, since they’re trying to assuage their conscience at other’s expense, or worse, pandering for power to those of that mindset.

    In 1872, a book was published entitled “A Dictionary of Every-Day Wants: Containing Twenty Thousand Receipts in Nearly Every Department of Human Effort”. The table of contents is below. While I’m sure prospectors didn’t carry a copy on their mules, remote farms often had a copy. Except for the drug and medical sections (dangerous by our standards), much of it remains usable.

    No, people didn’t make most of their own tools. And they certainly weren’t born knowing all this. No right-minded person would claim such. But they may well have survived with nobody building a road to where they lived, no government assuring their needs were met, etc. They must have; many of us are their descendants.

    Accidents and Emergencies 11
    Apiary 20
    Carpenter and Builder 24
    Cements, Glues and Pastes 32
    Cooking and Baking 40
    Druggist and Chemist 63
    Domestic Animals 87
    Farm, Orchard, Garden and Dairy 118
    Household Miscellany 151
    Household Pets 164
    Household Pests 173
    Hunting, Trapping and Tanning 176
    Inks and Blacking 197
    Medical and Surgical 207
    Ornamental Work 242
    Painting and Papering (Includitg Varnishing, Polishing, Staining
    and Gilding) 250
    Photography and the Fine Arts 272
    Preserving and Storing 293
    Soap and Candles 312
    Toilet 323
    Wardrobe 333
    Washing, Bleaching and Dyeing 338
    Wines, Liquors and Vinegar 362
    Workers in Glass 389
    Workers in Metals 397
    Miscellaneous 447

    1. But they survived based on the knowledge amassed by the community, as represented by that handbook.

    2. Lourain says:

      Several points:
      Some people resent paying for social services, because they never use them…until they do. Fire department, EMT/ambulance service, weather service (I live in Tornado Alley) are just a few. Compassion has nothing to do with social service taxes. Aid during that emergency that was never going to happen…?
      We are the descendants of the survivors, that’s true. But visit one of the old cemeteries. Count the number of tiny graves, the number of wives buried next to each man, and then tell me that humans working together haven’t improve life.
      How many of these old-time life activities have you actually tried? Do you appreciate how labor-intensive many of them are? Do you understand how much depends on others (raw materials for glass and metal working, fabric for clothes, chemicals not readily available for soaps,food preparation,etc.)?
      “Except for the drug and medical sections (dangerous by our standards), much of it remains usable.” You do know that the FDA is part of the federal government?

    3. Hanna says:

      “But anyone that thinks we should all be COMPELLED to be in it together is in my Arrogant Opinion…”

      Glad for the last bit. Apt. Shows you know.

  3. RRCRea says:

    There is little to no evidence that Neanderthals lacked the ability to cooperate as well as archaic Homo sapiens. They were able to coordinate mammoth hunts. They apparently were able to set up preschools where dozens of Neanderthal children ran around with gleeful abandon under the eye of a few teenagers until an adult came and called them all away. They organized deep dives to obtain shellfish and processed both the meat and the shells for tools. They may have used sharpened sticks to kill their prey, but the sticks were masterpieces of wood engineering. They made art. They made cordage. Their stone tool industry is a model of efficient use of resources with little to no waste.
    I could keep going and going and going on with this, but the fact of the matter that there’s very much still a sort “species-ist” attitude that should have been shucked (like those shell-fish) a long time ago. In one way the Neanderthals weren’t even replaced at all. They are in us still to a small degree. And, though they inarguably disappeared aside from that remnant, it wasn’t lack of cooperation that did it.
    What did? Still a mystery. Humans almost certainly could outbreed them. Like rats. Neanderthals with their bigger brains and stronger bodies probably took longer to mature to their full potential. So it could be the lower fertility that goes along with such things that left them at a disadvantage They were also adapted to an environment that started to disappear. Humans are probably better at innovation in the sense of coming up with random cultural and technological variation that allows for more “chaff” in the face of natural selection.

    1. They didn’t lack the ability to cooperate in small groups, but all the evidence unearthed to date suggests strongly that they either never chose or couldn’t live in larger groups, which limits the ability to come up with more complex tools [not because of lack of brain power, but because, at or near the subsistence level, it takes a lot of people to support a very few crafters].

  4. RRCRea says:

    When modern humans replaced Neanderthals, there is pretty much zero evidence that they were organizing in groups any larger or smaller than the Neanderthals were. To get the point you have actual craftsman to the degree you seem to be putting forward, the usual benchmark would be the Neolithic, probably not really until you’ve made Ur-level steps into urbanism. (Not that Gobekli Tepe doesn’t throw a possible wrench into that…)
    Not that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to create the cave paintings of Chauvet or some of the more intricate beadwork on preserved Paleolithic clothing from Siberia in the mammoth tusk homes, but I haven’t seen anyone put forward full on societal role specialization in forager level paleo-societies.
    Long and short, humans may have gotten more organized and specialized but that happened after the disappearance of the Neanderthals, Denisovans, whatever the other hominid DNA is present in the St. Denis cave specimens, the newly discovered “ghost” species present only in the DNA of West Africans, and whatever else we’ll discover (probably tomorrow…). Probably more of an effect of the rat-like breeding propensities of Homo sapiens us, especially after the development of large scale mass food production (and beer) than it was a cause of the extinction of our cousin species.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I suspect that the ‘rugged individualist’ as it applies to the US came first from the Revolutionary War – Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Green Mountain Boys and their charismatic leader, John Hancock’s signature… and then the fables of the westward expansion and what is now called “The Old West.” Modern legend-making with regards to movies and TV don’t show the heroes or anti-heroes of the stories forming a group unless there is some sort of antagonism from within the group AND from without. Trite examples: Tony Stark always does what he wants. Even Captain American goes his own way once in a while.

    Right now we have a president who is highly individualistic without having a smidgen of leadership potential (and no, having the power to threaten and follow through on threats is NOT leadership). But ‘rugged individualists’ rarely make good leaders. It is a myth that they do. People might follow them… but that doesn’t make a good leader.

    The real question I have:
    Are we, as a nation, smart enough to figure out when we need to gather together for strength and when we need to be the rugged individualist?

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