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Commentary By Yao Sun

Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?

Economics Regulatory Policy

“Rugged individualism runs from the founding throughout America, but it has never been traced or understood well,” said David Davenport at a lunch discussion about his new book, Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive? co-authored with Gordon Lloyd and published by the Hoover Institution this year.

Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, specializes in international law and treaties, constitutional federalism, and American politics and law. He has been writing on values in a free society and legal threats to American values. Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and a professor Emeritus at Pepperdine University.

A major debate on American individualism took place in the 1932 presidential election. President Herbert Hoover described the race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “a contest between two philosophies of government.” Hoover was a strong defender, and many say the inventor of the expression “rugged individualism,” whereas Roosevelt advocated a New Deal to shift power from the general public and free market to the federal government.

Davenport and Lloyd avoid immersing readers in a complex debate of political philosophy, but instead examine the ups and downs of American individualism throughout historical events and in the present context. Notably, the authors are most concerned about the ways in which government policy affects individualism.

They argue that individualism is a unique component of American’s DNA and inextricably intertwined with American character. From the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, individualism was at the center of American political lives. Pioneers who continued their westward expansion after the civil war were “classic rugged individuals” – they chose hardship to travel into unsettled lands over comfort at home. In other words, America was founded by people pursuing independence and individual rights.

Davenport and Lloyd suggest that these rugged individuals were replaced by “central planning” and the “forgotten men” in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, which they call a “the near-death experience of rugged individualism.” They trace American political history from the late 1890s to 1930s, to the Great Society programs that followed to show the trend of an increasing level of state policymaking and declining individualism.

One major challenge facing individualism in this era was the Progressives’ label of robber barons and laissez-faire. The authors emphasize that rugged individualism means to protect individual freedom in the economic sphere and in philosophical and political sense. But as a result of Roosevelt’s victory, the federal government expanded enormously during the New Deal in the name of temporary economic emergency. Many of the expansions remain today.

Davenport and Lloyd relate individualism to today’s policies. One example is the Affordable Care Act, which federalizes health and welfare, and challenges rugged individualism on its face by requiring individuals to make purchases. Secondly, federal education policy limits the freedom of parents, students and even teachers to choose the education they deem best.

The federal allocation of recourses and government regulations could be supported by massive amounts of information and data or formulated by the most advanced statistical models, but there is always a discrepancy between policy predictions and real-life scenarios: regulations never completely capture the preferences of consumers. Moreover, as the authors highlight, individual decision rights are always at risk under government regulations and standardization.

Davenport is optimistic about individualism among the young today. “I think young people are rediscovering individualism in their social media lives, and business lives,”  Davenport told me at a meeting at the Hoover Institution in Washington, D.C. The book ends with predictions of the future of individualism in America, presenting reasons to be both positive and negative. Davenport and Lloyd close by concluding that “to keep the American dream vital and alive, we will need rugged and resourceful American individualism.”

A fair and clear understanding of American individualism is much needed nowadays. Davenport and Lloyd provide readers with an insightful perspective on examining American political history and analyzing government policymaking—following the flourishing and declining of rugged individualism. The book will appeal to a wide range of people, not only history lovers, individualists or political thinkers, but also to those who seek to answer the question as to whether American individualism is alive or dead.


Yao Sun is a contributor to E21.

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