Rugged individualism

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Asked for comment, the ghost of Horatio Alger said he found Paul’s economic ideas “a bit of a stretch.”
—Marty Kelley[1] on Rand Paul

Rugged individualism was the phrase used often by Herbert Hoover during his time as president. It refers to the idea that each individual should be able to help themselves out, and that the government does not need to involve itself in people's economic lives nor in national economics in general. It is often associated with Social Darwinism or an "up-by-the-bootstraps" philosophy.

However, the idea behind rugged individualism preceded Hoover, mainly in the highly-mythologized fictions of first yeoman farmers (who would be called family farmers or subsistence farmers today) in the 18th century, and later cowboys in the American West dating back to the 19th century. In 1778-1779, plantation owner Thomas Jefferson proposed that "the yeoman farmer was the ideal citizen of an ideal republic".[2]:198

Those fictions suited the needs of oligarchs' divide-and-rule strategies.[3][4]:xvii The myth was that the yeomen were self-sufficient, and did not require any government support or intervention.[5] The mythology of the yeoman actually became more ingrained as it became more unrealistic as farm-born youth fled to cities in large numbers to seek economic opportunities in the first half of the 19th century.[5] The reason why the myth was able to persist was because it served the purposes of the elite, who in the South owned most of the enslaved people and most of the land; therefore, the elite class did everything in their power to reinforce it.[4]:xvii The myth of the cowboy originated during the period of Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War. The cowboy was portrayed as "a hardworking white man who started from nothing".[4]:87-88 Contrary to the mythology, about a third of cowboys in this period were African American, Mexican, or Native American. They worked for low wages under dangerous conditions, and little chance at upward mobility. Their bosses were to some extent also dependent on government contracts and land grants.[4]:88-89

Hoover emphasized that rugged individualism was not laissez-faire, though many modern rugged individualists have ignored that. His idea of "rugged individualism" reflected his idea of how the federal government should not interfere with the American people during the Great Depression. Providing large-scale humanitarian efforts, Hoover feared, would injure "the initiative and enterprise of the American people."[6] Post-World War I, rugged individualism appealed to fiscal conservatives who were dismayed by the regulatory bureaucracy built up by the Wilson administration. As Calvin Coolidge said, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business."[7]

When the Depression started, Hoover insisted that the market would right itself. However, further into his term, Hoover felt that he was forced into action by the dire circumstances of the Depression, but still believed that the government should play a limited role in the American economy. (In other words, "Do something, but not too much!") Unfortunately, when he did intervene, it either made things worseWikipedia or was so ineffective as to be the equivalent of doing nothing.Wikipedia[8]

Americans vs. Europeans[edit]

According to the World Values Survey, a significant majority of Americans believe the poor could become rich if they tried hard enough, whereas a significant proportion of Europeans disagree.[9] In a 2014 Pew survey, a majority of Americans disagreed that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” whereas a majority of non-Americans concurred.[10] “Americans believe that poverty is due to bad choices or lack of effort; Europeans view poverty as a trap from which it is hard to escape,” argue the economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and George-Marios Angeletos of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Americans perceive wealth and success as the outcome of individual talent, effort, and entrepreneurship; Europeans attribute a larger role to luck, corruption, and connections.”[11] Ironically, however, social mobility in Europe is, on average, higher than in the US.[12]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. "Rand Paul Says Hard Work And Tax Cuts Will Make Everyone Rich, Especially The Rich", Wonkette.
  2. The Age of Federalism by Stanley M. Elkins & Eric McKitrick (1993) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195068904.
  3. How the Confederacy shaped the American West and cowboy culture: In arguing that the South won the Civil War, historian Heather Cox Richardson points to the paradox of the cowboy and how it presents an enduring dilemma for our democracy. by Knute Berger (June 3, 2021) Crosscut, PBS.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson (2022) Oxford University Press. ISBN 019758179X.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Myth Of The Happy Yeoman by Richard Hofstadter (1956) American Heritage 7(3).
  6. Arthur W. McMahon. Third Session of the Seventy-First Congress, December 1, 1930 to March 4, 1931. The American Political Science Review Vol. 25, No. 4 (Nov., 1931), pp. 932-955
  7. Calvin Coolidge: Address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., Jan. 17 1925
  8. Herbert Hoover, Still Not a Liberal, Jonathan Chait, The New Republic
  9. Fairness and Redistribution By Alberto Alesina & George-Marios Angeletos
  10. Hard Work & Religion are just 2 areas where Americans and Europeans diverge
  11. Fairness and Redistribution By Alberto Alesina & George-Marios Angeletos
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Global Social Mobility Index.