Rugged Individualism

We Americans pride ourselves on our “rugged individualism” which Merriam-Webster defines as “the practice or advocacy of individualism in social and economic relations emphasizing personal liberty and independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, self-direction of the individual, and free competition in enterprise.” The emphasis, in other words, is on what’s-in-it-for-me, that is, selfism, defined as concentration on one’s own interests, self-centeredness, or self-absorption. Selfism upholds explicitly selfish principles as being desirable. It is the hallmark of capitalism.

The opposing philosophy is collectivism—defined as the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it—or socialism, which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

An argument I often hear is that rugged individualism lies at the heart of American greatness. By encouraging each of us to look out for number one and to disregard the needs of the community, the American model has led to amazing achievements. My answer to such claims is to agree but to point out that rugged individualism has also led to overwhelming inequities in American culture. The top 1 percent of earners in the United States account for about 20 percent of the country’s total income annually. Meanwhile, the lowest-earning quarter of Americans account for just 3.7 percent of income every year. That has led to severe political inequality. As Robert Reich points out, “As early as 2012, more than 40 percent of all money spent in US federal elections came from the wealthiest of the wealthiest—not the top one percent or even the top tenth of the one percent, but from the top one percent of the one percent.” As a result, Republicans, representing the well-to-do minority, often dominate our governing structures.

My sense is that it’s well past time to even out the playing field and find ways to allocate our wealth more equally. Let’s temper our individualism with a splash of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We can start with taxation. Billionaires in the U.S., for example, pay only 8.2 percent of their income in taxes, whereas the rest of us pay 25.4 percent. It’s time to change that.

The sooner we start, the better.

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