Hope Beyond Rugged Individualism

I’m sure I’ve picked up most of my US History knowledge outside of US history classes. For instance, I played in the pit orchestra for Annie in high school. And I learned quite a bit about the Great Depression. You probably know Annie’s famous anthem, Tomorrow. And you’ve probably heard It’s The Hard Knock Life. But do know We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover? Or about Hoovervilles?

I didn’t, despite earning As in US history classes.

Herbert Hoover’s successful bid for president culminated in a speech on October 22, 1928, that enshrined the concept of rugged individualism into the American mythos. Hoover made his case against federal interference in the economy. He argued that while centralization was necessary during WWI, it was now a danger to the American way.

“During the war, we necessarily turned to the government to solve every difficult economic problem. The government, having absorbed every energy of our people for war, there was no other solution. For the preservation of the State, the Federal Government became a centralized despotism which undertook unprecedented responsibilities, assumed autocratic powers, and took over the business of citizens.”

Hoover believed that if the federal government continued to direct economic growth, it would impede Americans’ freedom.

“I should like to state to you the effect that this projection of government in business would have upon our system of self-government and our economic system. That effect would reach to the daily life of every man and woman. It would impair the very basis of liberty and freedom not only for those left outside the fold of expanded bureaucracy but for those embraced within it.”

Hoover took up the cause of restoring the political philosophy of little-l liberalism. In other words, he believed that Americans were most free and had the most economic potential when the government didn’t interfere in their lives.

Further, he claimed this approach had already yielded incredible results.

“By adherence to the principles of decentralized self-government, ordered liberty, equal opportunity and freedom to the individual, our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world. It has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want, than humanity has ever reached before.”

You don’t need to be a historian to question the validity of these statements.

In 1928, white women had only won the right to vote eight years previous. Irish and Italian immigrants were only starting to be accepted in polite company. Jim Crow laws robbed Black people of their economic futures while also incarcerating and murdering them. American Indian residential schools were still taking children from their homes in service of assimilation. American Indians had only become US citizens in 1924.

In every way you can imagine, the United States was only the land of the free for a very narrow slice of the population. The rugged individualism Hoover sought to restore had a color—white. It also had a gender—male. But, Hoover insisted that American individualism was based on equality of opportunity.

“Nor do I wish to be misinterpreted as believing that the United States is free-for-all and devil-take-the-hind-most. The very essence of equality of opportunity and of American individualism is that there shall be no domination by any group or combination in this Republic, whether it be business or political. On the contrary, it demands economic justice as well as political and social justice. It is no system of laissez faire.”

Sure, Mr. Hoover.

We see the legacy of Hoover’s case for rugged individualism in all of the most popular self-help and success books. From Norman Vincent Peale to Brian Tracy, to Bernard Roth, to Rachel Hollis—the message is profound self-reliance.

The self-improvement mantras we encounter daily rely on recasting inequality as personal excuses.

The logic of individualism makes sense if you don’t think too hard and don’t get curious about what is going on beneath the surface. But the rationale quickly breaks down when you start asking questions.

Friedrich Hayek was another devoted proponent of individualism in the first half of the 20th century. Hayek was an economist and political philosopher, and he helped to found the society that advocates for individualist, free-market economic policies to this day.

Hayek believed in equal economic opportunity, just as Hoover did. But he absolutely did not believe in trying to level the playing field. He wrote, “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal.”

To Hayek, people were not equal.

And by allowing for equal opportunity, some would rise to the top. Others would sink to the bottom. And, society would benefit by getting its varied needs met by different kinds of people.

Just like Hoover, Hayek’s free individual was white and male.

One year and a week after Hoover’s rugged individualism speech, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. It was Black Tuesday, the beginning of the Great Depression. Hoover refused to provide outright relief to those suffering during the Great Depression. Worse, he exacerbated trade wars. His approach to navigating the Great Depression earned him the distinction of US News & World Report’s 9th worst president.

The Depression only started to abate after President Roosevelt put a host of progressive policies in place to address the needs of citizens directly. FDR wasn’t a rugged individualist. I might suggest, instead, that FDR’s approach was one of rugged cooperation.

Rugged individualism is still deeply enmeshed in American culture.

And its myth is one of our biggest exports to the rest of the world. Rugged individualism is the philosophical foundation that convinces you that if you fail, it’s because you’re not good enough. Rugged individualism erases the impact of structural and systemic inequality.

And rugged individualism is what inspires the kind of tough luck policies we looked at in last week’s deep dive.

Individualism is what convinces us to buy products and services designed to help us overcome the results of continued injustice or to mitigate the effects of inhumane conditions.

Individualism is the driving force behind the pseudo-feminist imperative to “lean in.” And it’s what exhorts us to work on ourselves instead of working toward better policies for everyone.

The logic of individualism is also a logic of loneliness and isolation.

It’s the sense that you are the only one responsible for your success or failure. That there is no help available. Rugged individualism cuts us off from human connection. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote presciently about the danger of a society of lonely individuals. She defined loneliness not as solitude—since solitude is where one can reflect on their connection to themselves and others and really prepare themselves for encountering others. She described loneliness as isolation and even alienation from others and the reality of experience. Loneliness, she argued, was the breeding ground of totalitarianism.

So while Hoover saw rugged individualism as the foundation of freedom, Arendt viewed loneliness as the prime condition for domination.

Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge on a recent episode of Vox Conversations:

“She understood loneliness as this peculiarly modern problem. It’s a problem that comes with individualism. The problem that comes with capitalism. It’s a problem that comes with modernity.”

The condition of individuality and the state of isolation are both illusions.

To be human is to be profoundly connected to others. When we forget that, we forget who we are.

Yet, most of us speak the language of individualism—even if we weren’t born to it. So individualism influences the marketing messages we create and those that act on us. Individualism is the lens through which we see our P&L statements, even if the accounting of revenue and expenses is inherently an accounting of relationships.

While individualism persists as the dominant language of business and career success, it isn’t equipped to describe the reality of business or career success. We recognize the economic system we move through every day and how it influences our decisions—the profit motive, self-reliance, “it’s just business” mentality.

Yet, we can also recognize that most of our activities are not driven by capitalism, as Rebecca Solnit argues in her book Hope In The Dark. Our interactions and commitments to friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors are “in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, full of things we do for free, out of love, and on principle.”

We take part in rugged cooperation every day.

And businesses can be run with rugged cooperation, too.

What could happen if we replaced the philosophy of rugged individualism with a philosophy of rugged cooperation? What if we swapped out the scripts we’ve learned in an individualist culture with the curiosity and care of a collaborative culture?

And how would your business or career shift if you approached it not as your best way to climb to the top in a flawed system but as a laboratory for experimenting with ruggedly cooperative systems?

As Solnit put it, “What we dream of is already present in the world.”

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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