Rugged individualism is as American as it gets. John Wayne was probably viewed as the epitome of this concept—that each person should be responsible for their own life, that people do not need and should not accept help from any government. Wayne’s voice was that of what is now called libertarianism, which, at its core, believes that any government action in the lives of individuals is a bad thing.
Another name for this is “Social Darwinism,” which dates from shortly after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. In essence, it conflates the natural selection aspects of Darwin’s work to cultures and classes of people—that the strong survive and the weak die off, and that is just the way things were intended. Survival of the fittest. If people cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, well, then they simply do not thrive and further, that any assistance given to them—such as providing them with the bootstraps on which they are to pull—is a disservice not only to them, but to society in general because it perpetuates those who cannot stand on their own.
A significant portion of the Republican Party now ascribes to this sort of thinking, as popularized by Ayn Rand, whose philosophy, Objetivism, while ignored by most academic philosophers just never seems to go the way of the dodo. In part, it states that “the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism” (summary found on the Wikipedia entry for Ayn Rand).
Rand considered altruism—unselfish concern for the welfare of others—a “basic evil” and referred to those who perpetuate any system of taxation and redistribution as “looters” and “moochers.” “Redistribution of wealth” became a mantra used by Republicans against President Obama we hear quite frequently from the right wing of the Republican Party. She wrote in her book “The Virtue of Selfishness” that accepting any government controls is “delivering oneself into gradual enslavement.” Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen is the prime example: people who mooch off the hard working through fraud. Of course, it is the dirtly, low-down looting liberals who take the money fromthe hard-working true Americans who give it to the moochers.
I read her stuff in high school and liked it. It just felt right—the rugged individual standing on his or own two feet, defiantly making his or her place in the world without help from anyone. It can be heard in the phrase, “I don’t want your charity,” as if “charity,” defined by Webster as “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity” and “generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering” were a bad thing. The belief is that anyone who needs to rely on charity, the kindness of others, is somehow deficient, lacking, and generally unworthy.
In movies, especially Westerns, rugged individualism is an ideal, and no set of characters displayed it as well as those played by John Wayne. This fits with what we imagine as the frontier, what was delivered to us by Hollywood; we tend to forget that Hollywood is in the business of selling tickets not teaching history, and that a story that we never get tired of is that of one man (or woman), who, against all odds, survives.
Scarlett O’Hara, before the intermission of Gone With the Wind, declared, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” How this worked out for her is debatable. She did lose Rhett, as shown in the final two lines of dialogue in the movie: Scarlett: Rhett… if you go, where shall I go, what shall I do?
Rhett Butler: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Of course, it is difficult to be a “rugged individualist” if one lives around a lot of other people, in cities and towns. Cities require administrative work and more white-collar jobs. Someone has to manage the process of getting potable water into and trash and sewer out of the cities, which require a taxing of the residents to pay for it. In the country, this was handled individually by digging wells and septic systems and taxation was anathema. See my post “Why Are the Coasts More Liberal than the Centre of the Country?” here.
Why I became a true liberal
When I was younger—and by younger, I mean before I turned 37—I kind of had this belief. If you read the “About Me” post on here and some of the things in the “Roughing It” section, you will get a feel for how I was raised. It was not good.
I was extremely naive about the world when I got out of high school. I suppose most of us are, but when I look back, being raised in an abusive home where alcohol was a serious problem, it is amazing I was. This was stripped away, one layer at a time. I lost my innocence. But it took a while.
I got fired from my first real job the day after Christmas in 1974 (see this story here). It took months to get a job. Eventually I was able to rent a place to sleep in a garage apartment without air-conditioning. I got married and started going to college. It took a long time—I graduated seven years after I got out of high school. I am not complaining; I learned a lot from all the jobs I had while getting my degree.
Because of a significant lucky choice about the college I chose—which, unbeknownst to me, was at that time, one of the top ten Accounting programs in the country, I had job offers from 7 of the 8 largest accounting firms in the world (I subsequently worked for the 8th and was offered a partnership in it). I was lucky: had I not gotten fired that day, if the record shop I worked for not been sold and had they not messed me over many times, had I chosen to go to school at Arkansas Tech in Russelville—which was my preference—instead of the University in Fayetteville, I doubt I would have even gotten an interview with any of those large firms.
I vividly remember telling people that if someone with my background and disadvantages could “make it,” that anyone could if they wanted to make the effort. I believed that the difference between financial success and poverty was a state of mind.
Then, one night in 1992, driving home from a church choir practice, it hit me. Not everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps because many just do not have much of anything to pull on. Did I work hard to get through school and did I work hard to crawl up the ladder at those big firms? Yes. But I had several things going for me that not everyone has.
The first was having a certain level of intelligence, which I believe is a gift of God or genetics—take your pick
The second was health. I had the physical ability to do what was necessary. One semester, in which I carried 18 hours, I worked two jobs for a total of more than 40 hours a week. I would go to class at 7AM, work until 9 PM, then study until 2 or 3 AM. Had not spring break happened when it did, I might not have made it through the semester.
Even the desire to do the work is not innate to everyone. There are people who are driven and some who are not. I cannot explain this. I understand that many are driven by their parents to work harder than they believed possible. In some ways, being raised in a hostile home environment helps. In my case, I learned to think quickly and adapt. It was a necessary and somewhat unhealthy trait that served me well after college. (See my piece “Why is the red fish being bad?” here for more on this.)
Had I not gotten fired when I did, it is doubtful I would have finished college, or married the person I did, which has led to kids and grandkids and so many good things, I cannot even begin to describe.
After all of these fortunate circumstances, had I not gotten a phone call while looking for a job in 1985—and how they located me to be able to make the call, no one can explain—I would not have become associated with the firm that offered me a partnership six years later. It was while working with this group that I learned the skills that have enabled me to make my way.
All of this comprises what my brothers and I refer to as “Dog Luck.”
Yes, I know that some say that we make our own luck and that one has to recognize the opportunity and have the guts to seize it, and that to say that luck played any role is achieving success demeans the role of hard work and sacrifice. This is the belief I had before that night in 1992. Now, I understand that many people who work harder than me and who are smarter than me,do not get ahead. Luck, timing, karma. A gift from God. Something from outside the person, something over which the person had no control.
What it means to be liberal – the conservative viewpoint
If one listens to Limbaugh and Hannity and much of the right, liberals are against pretty much everything that is good and right in the country. Liberals want to destroy the country and the economy; they want to make people dependent on governemtnt, to destroy individual desire; they hate profit, business,and especially those evil corporations; they want to make the country weaker, destroy or cripple the military; they try to take money away from hard-working citizens and give it to the lazy moochers. Liberals hate Christianity and morality. And, in the end, liberals—they say—want a socialistic country where everything is provided by the state.
The right often refers to liberals using the epithet “limousine liberals,” by which they mean that one must have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, never having to have worked for anything to be a liberal. On the other side, they believe that the Welfare Queens, the lay-a-abouts, the moochers are liberals because of the deleterious effect of having things redistributed to them for so long by the evil liberals who have been trying to destroy the country.
Have to give the right wing credit: They have done such a good job with this sort of propaganda that a significant portion of the Republican Party now equates the term liberal with evil. They have done such a good job, that many liberals hesitate to refer to themselves with the label because of the derision they often hear from conservatives.
Many conservatives believe that the way to solve all problems is to lower taxes and reduce the size of government; some, led by Grover Norquist, want to shrink it to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. They believe in self-reliance, that each man stands on his own, that a true American, as idealized by John Wayne, needs nothing from anybody.
This is, frankly, wrong. Socialism, in its purest form is a system in which there is no private property, in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state. I suppose some liberals think this to be the best system, but I do not know one.
What it means to be liberal – my view
What it means to be a liberal is to want people to have opportunity without regard to their race, economic status, religion or sexual orientation. Liberals want those certain inalienable rights Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence —life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to be available to everyone.
“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him how to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” Yeah, I know. But when someone is in need, I feel it is our duty to help. It is not up to us to judge people. Yes, I understand that there are a small number of people who will take advantage of the generosity of others. I think of this sometimes when I buy a homeless person a meal, but, in the end, I look past this possibility.
I do not believe in complete and total equalization of income. I believe that it is only reasonable that some may earn more than others, that in some circumstances, a Bill Gates makes more money than is fathomable for people not dealing with the federal budget. I also believe that those who are so fortunate have an obligation to help those who are not.
In the “Golden Age” to which many want to return the country, there was an unspoken contract between business and people. The business leaders sponsored the youth baseball teams, gave prodigious amounts to local charities, paid for public buildings, built wings of hospitals. Some, like Bill and Melinda Gates still do. Far too many have an “I got mine, you get your’s attitude,” which fits in well with Social Darwinism and the writings of Ayn Rand.
Fine, assume they got theirs. But they did not do it on their own. If they went to public schools, they were helped by the government. If they went to a public university, the state paid for more than half the cost. Taxes pay for roads and hydroelectric dams, airports—the infrastructure of the country. Taxes directly pay for police and firefighters, the military, disaster relief, 911, water delivery, sanitation, public parks, the weather service, public libraries, the postal system, the court system, prisons.
Further, those damned regulations that conservatives want to kill enforce workplace safety and wage laws, clean water, help control pollution and so many other things. Think that left to their own devices that businesses would do all these things on their own because if they did not they would lose business? Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Love Canal. Pittsburgh before people decided good, breathable air was important.
Too often, people have to wait until something horrible happens to a family member or close friend to realize something must be done. With health care, I have seen one after another conservative change their position on the need for affordable and available health care when Aunt Susie takes a fall and runs up a million dollar rehabilitation bill or when cousin Steve is hit by a drunk driver and is disabled. This is not empathy. It is a symptom of the selfishness Ayn Rand called a virtue—when it affects the individual, it matters.
Near the end of her life, Ms. Rand, in dire straits, turned her back on Objectivism and took Social Security, against which she railed her entire life.
This is not to demean Ms. Rand. I am just sorry it took her so long to see the good that can come when we all believe we are in this thing called life together, and that together we can raise each other up.
The old catcall is “if you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart; if you are not conservative when you are older, you have no brain.
Liberalism is really fiscally conservative
The ironic thing this misses, that too many so-called rugged individualists miss, is that providing for the health and education for all is good for the economy. A healthy and educated workforce will pay more taxes. My rheumatoid arthritis could have disabled me in the late 1980s. I would have been a burden to society and my family would have suffered. Because of access to health care, I am a productive, taxpaying member of society. There are millions of people with similar anecdotes that, taken together, prove the point.