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Friday, June 25, 2021

Rugged American Individualism is a Myth, and It’s Killing Us

Katherine Wasson
Hastings Center
Originally published 4 June 21

The starkest picture of rugged American individualism is one we learned in school. A family moves West to settle the land and struggles with the elements.  Yet, even in these depictions, settlers needed help to raise a barn or harvest crops. They drew on the help of others and reciprocated in return. In the 21st century few Americans live in any way close to this largely self-sustaining lifestyle. Yet, the myth of rugged individualism is strong and persistent.

The reality for all of us is that none survive or flourish without the help of others. Whether it is within a family, peer group, school, religious institution, or wider community, all of us have been helped by others. Someone somewhere encouraged us, gave us a break or an opportunity, however small.  Some have experienced random acts of kindness from strangers. The myth of rugged individualism, which often means “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is outdated, was never completely accurate, and is harming us.

Holding tightly to this myth leads to the misperception that an individual can do (or not do) whatever they want in society and no person or, perhaps especially, government entity can tell them otherwise. People say, “As long as my choice doesn’t harm anyone else, I should be able to do what I want.” How they know their action does not harm anyone else is unclear and there are examples from the pandemic where personal choice does harm others. In bioethics we recognize this view as an expression of individual autonomy; the freedom to govern oneself.  Yet, such blinkered views of individual autonomy are misguided and inaccurate. Everyone’s autonomy is limited in society to avoid harm to the self or others. We enforce seatbelt and drunk driving laws to these ends. Moreover, that we rely on others to function in society has been made very clear during the pandemic. We need others to provide food and education, collect our garbage, and conduct the scientific research that informs our knowledge of the virus. These contributions support the common good.

We have seen rugged individualism on full display during the coronavirus pandemic. It can lead to a disregard for the worth and value of others. While many people observed public health restrictions and guidelines, others, including some elected officials, refused to wear masks and are now refusing vaccination. Those who cling to their individualism seem to view such restrictions as unnecessary or unacceptable, an infringement on their individual rights and freedoms. They are not willing to sacrifice a degree of their freedom to protect themselves or others. The result has been 33,264,650 cases and 594,568 deaths in the United States and counting.