On Absolute Individualism

Mar 11, 2014 by

One of America’s defining characteristics is its emphasis on what is called “absolute individualism,” i.e., the culture of making the individual as self-reliant as practically possible.  This is an important part of our culture to consider when comparing the policies of other countries to the policies of the United States.  What works well for Sweden or France may not work so well for us, and vice-versa.

There are five reasons why the United States has a strong commitment to absolute individualism.(1)  The first reason lies in our history and the frontier experience.  Both immigrants and native-born Americans were encouraged to head out west under such programs as the Homesteading Act.  This created a culture of self-sufficiency as well as made property easy to own.  With free property, a poor farmer could make a living on nothing but his own efforts.

myths about great people who "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" have become a common American legend

Myths about great people who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” have become a common American legend

The fact that it was so easy to own property made it easy for many people to not only make a living, but also to become wealthy.  The fact that there are so many wealthy people in the United States is both a result of absolute individualism and a factor in its perpetuation.  Stories about billionaires who made it by ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps’ become part of the national mythology that anyone can make it big here with hard work.  These myths directly contribute to the promotion of absolute individualism.

A large portion of the massive expanse of land that comprises the United States is used for agriculture, and has been used as such since it was first settled by Europeans.  An agricultural society is necessarily more sparsely populated than an urban environment.  Because of this, it is hard to organize farmers who live far apart and spend most of their time working on their own land.  These farmers are not constantly rubbing elbows with their neighbors, so why would they think that they are interdependent with each other?  Self-reliance on the farm is an expression of absolute individualism.

The lateness of the Industrial Revolution in United States history is also a factor in our commitment to absolute individualism.  The Industrial Revolution was a major factor in the urbanization of America and the shift from more people living in rural areas to living in urban or suburban areas.  Because the revolution started later in our history, we were able to develop a strong commitment to the individualism of an agrarian society before urbanism took hold.  Also, the pre-industrial idea of the ‘craft’ union promotes the idea of people working together within their trade, rather than within their community.  This leads to absolute individualism because even though the workers of a certain craft are organizing themselves, they are only doing so for their own benefit rather than for the greater good of society as a whole.  For example, a coal-mining union is only concerned with the welfare of coal-miners rather than the welfare of the train conductors and truck drivers who transport their product.

This union worker is more concerned with his trades' union than the teachers' union or the fieldworkers' union

this union worker is more concerned with his trades’ union than the teachers’ union or the fieldworkers’ union

The last factor in the United States’ development of absolute individualism is ethnic diversity.  This is due to a basic rule:  that a society divided on racial, ethnic, and/or religious lines is more difficult to divide on social class lines.  This is because these differences are usually more apparent than differences in wealth.  When a society divides itself in such a way, it is easier to think of oneself as inherently different from people of different groups.  This is in contrast to a society where social class is the only difference; it is then easier to think that a person of one class is not so different from a person of another class.  Therefore, one would be more likely to stick to ideals of absolute individualism rather than try to find common ground within one’s socio-economic group.

But what does all of this mean for America?  So what if we are individualistic, what does this have to do with our policies?  In a country like Sweden, which considers itself relatively homogeneous (even if it’s not), which only has roughly 10 million people, most of whom live in cities, it is easy to see the benefits of passing social welfare programs.  In a melting pot of a country with huge, diverse populations spread out from sea to shining sea, it is harder to see why such benefits are necessary.  This is not to say that one country is right and one country is wrong; it just means that each country must find its own way of functioning in a way that fits with its national character.

(1) Chris Dennis, class lecture, 5 March 2014

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