Rugged individualism

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Rugged individualism, derived from individualism, is a term that indicates the ideal whereby an individual is self-reliant and independent from outside, usually state or government, assistance. While the term is often associated with the notion of laissez-faire and associated adherents, it was actually coined by United States president Herbert Hoover.[1][2]


American rugged individualism has its origins in the American frontier experience. Throughout its evolution, the American frontier was generally sparsely populated and had very little infrastructure in place. Under such conditions, individuals had to provide for themselves to survive. This kind of environment favored people who preferred to work in isolation from a larger community and may have shifted attitudes at the frontier in favor of individualistic thought over collectivism.[3]

Through the mid-twentieth century, the concept was championed by Hoover's former Secretary of the Interior and long-time president of Stanford University, Ray Lyman Wilbur, who wrote: "It is common talk that every individual is entitled to economic security. The only animals and birds I know that have economic security are those that have been domesticated—and the economic security they have is controlled by the barbed-wire fence, the butcher's knife and the desire of others. They are milked, skinned, egged or eaten up by their protectors."[4]

Influence on contemporary America[edit]

The ideal of rugged individualism continues to be a part of American thought. In 2016, a poll by Pew Research found that 57% of Americans did not believe that success in life was determined by forces outside of their control. Additionally, the same poll found that a 58% of Americans valued a non-interventionist government over one that actively worked to further the needs of society.[5]

Academics interviewed in the 2020 book "Rugged Individualism and the Misunderstanding of American Inequality," co-written by Noam Chomsky, largely found that the continued belief in this brand of individualism is a strong factor in American policies surrounding social spending and welfare. Americans who more strongly believe in the values espoused by rugged individualism tend to view those who seek government assistance as being responsible for their position, leading to decreased support for welfare programs and increased support for stricter criteria for receiving government help.[6] The influence of American individualistic thought extends to government regulation as well. Areas of the country who were part of the American frontier for longer, and were therefore more influenced by the frontier experience, were found to be more likely to be supportive of Republican candidates, who often vote against regulations such as gun control, minimum wage increases, and environmental regulation.[3]

Notable utterances[edit]

In support of American laissez-faire thought:

"We were challenged with a peace-time choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines – doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government. It would have meant the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.": Section of Herbert Hoover's post-election speech after the 1928 US presidential election in reference to what was, in his view, excessive growth of government power during World War I under administrations before him. Faced with mass poverty in the United States during the Great Depression, president Hoover advocated against the use of government programs, which he feared would lead to mass dependence on government aid, to alleviate the issues facing the country at the time. This is the first known use of the phrase "rugged individualism."[7]

In critique of American laissez-faire thought:

"This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.": — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King speech given March 10, 1968 entitled “The Other America”.[8] See also, well-known tweet by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders referencing this Martin Luther King Jr. quote which alleges an inequality of how government spending was seen when it was used for the poor and African Americans instead of wealthy white Americans.[9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ America's Great Depression, Rothbard, Murray N., 5th Edition: Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, June 15, 2000. Hardcover. 368 pages. ISBN 0-945466-05-6.'
  3. ^ a b Bazzi, Samuel; Fiszbein, Martin; Gebresilasse, Mesay (2020). "Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of "Rugged Individualism" in the United States". Econometrica. 88 (6): 2329–2368. doi:10.3982/ECTA16484. ISSN 1468-0262.
  4. ^ "Ray Lyman Wilbur". NNDB. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
  5. ^ Langlois, Shawn. "Religion, hard work are just 2 areas where Americans and Europeans diverge". MarketWatch. Retrieved 2021-02-22.
  6. ^ "Rugged Individualism and the Misunderstanding of American Inequality" (PDF). Confronting Poverty. 02/05/20. Retrieved 2021-02-22. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ "Digital History". Retrieved 2021-02-24.
  8. ^ {{Cite web|
  9. ^ "". Twitter. Retrieved 2021-02-24. External link in |title= (help)
  10. ^ "City Observatory - Dr. King: Socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor". City Observatory. 2019-01-21. Retrieved 2021-02-24.