For those of you old enough to remember when cigarette companies could advertise their products, you will surely remember the Marlboro Man. The Marlboro Man was a prototypical American icon, he was a cowboy. He fully embodied the all-American concept of rugged individualism. As an American brand, there could be no better shorthand than to align your product with the cowboy, it showed how American you were.
It’s no surprise that a cowboy would be used as the icon for the American ideal. The cowboy who choses to forge his own path, who is self-reliant, who pulls himself up by his boot straps, used to be revered by many as the ideal version of an American.
As times moved on, that ideal became less and less of an aspirational goal. This shift away from rugged individualism as an American ideal started with progressives. As progressives began to more enthusiastically embrace more collectivist policies, it was natural that championing individualism (rugged or otherwise) didn’t square with collectivism.
In hindsight, the mid-1990’s may be seen as a tipping point. In 1996, Hilary Clinton, then the First Lady, released a book titled “It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” The book’s title and main thesis are derived from the African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child.
When the book came out, conservatives, who were still fully enthralled with rugged individualism, roundly derided the idea that parenting wasn’t a personal choice or that parents needed the support of their community to raise their children.
But as with most things, the Overton Window shifted over time and now even conservatives have begun to embrace their own version of collectivist concepts. Conservatives have not fully embraced socialism. However, with the rise of Donald Trump, the conservatives have definitely become more welcoming to certain ideologies, like populism, that are, at their core, collectivist in nature.
The basic idea behind populism is that the power of the group is superior to the power of the individual. The conservative’s current nationalist populist movement loves to hang their hat on the concept of the “silent majority,” the idea that the pandering to niche constituencies by progressives has completely left the “forgotten men and women” of the silent majority out of the equation.
As Mike Fuez laid out in his latest piece, as the Trump presidency has evolved, the interventionist economic policies of the administration have taken on a new name, “common good capitalism,” and a host of formerly conservative thinkers have gotten deep into the weeds of arguing that the government knows better how to manage the economy. They reason this is to keep us from making poor choices, but the outcome is that it keeps us from making any choices at all.
The fact that both major political parties have abandoned this long-held American ideal of rugged individualism is troubling to those of us who still hew to a liberty-oriented political and economic philosophies.
Those of us who want to be left alone by our government and who want the free market to operate without government intervention to dictate winners and losers still believe in the power of rugged individuals and the value of their liberty to make personal choices.
This individualism is hard-wired in the American spirit, or at least it used to be. It is what motivated scores of people to leave their families and homes and venture across an ocean in search of a better life. It’s what motivated people to rebel against their king to be left to their own devices. It’s what motivated people to leave their established communities on the east coast and head into the unexplored and untamed west.
Individualism is in our DNA. Where has that independent spirit gone? Why are we so willing to opt for comfort and rely on the nanny-state of big government programs to rule our lives?
People like to chalk up our economic ills to “late stage capitalism.” Perhaps our real peril is actually late stage liberty?
Perhaps we have started to take our liberty for granted. We are no longer chaffing at the yoke of the collectivist state. We are no longer “yearning to breathe free.”
The demise of rugged individualism may ultimately lead to the demise of our great experiment in liberty.
I don’t know about anyone else, but to paraphrase Dylan Thomas: I won’t go quietly into that good night. I will rage, rage at the dying of the liberty’s light.