The Lie of American Individualism

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In an article for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez define invidiualism as “the belief that ‘the good society’ is one in which individuals are left free to pursue their private satisfactions independently of others, a pattern of thinking that emphasizes individual achievement and self-fulfillment.”

This spirit of individualism and self-reliance is as old as American society itself. The Founding Fathers heralded the rights of the individual in the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the newly-formed United States. In the 1800s, the Transcendentalists proclaimed a version of rugged individualism and living apart from what they deemed the corrupting nature of society. Today, politicians and pundits decry what they see as a loss of individualism in our culture and advocate a return to roots.

Not that some politicians don’t recognize the fallacy inherent in such thinking: remember Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech? That sound bite got beaten long past the point of equine death by Republicans eager to capitalize on an unpopular statement Obama made. The context of the line was that Obama was talking about infrastructure:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

His point is indisputable: successful business owners did not learn how to run a business by themselves, they did not build the roads, bridges, telephone lines, and in many cases the buildings that they occupy, and they did not mint the money they used to start their business. Infrastructure, education, loans, incorporation: all of these are products of the society and its government, created to benefit the society at large.

The Power of Delusion

The reason Republicans were so easily able to manipulate Obama’s indisputably valid point and turn it into a rallying cry — “We built that!” — against Obama’s perceived elitism is very simple: although those who are successful may know, on an intellectual level, that their success is not solely the product of their own sweat, on a deeper, emotional level, everyone wants to believe that it is.

That’s part of the reason people hate paying taxes: they view it not as paying back their (enormous) debt to a society that has provided them with massive opportunities, but as an onerous duty taken from them without justification. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I remember seeing my first paycheck late last June, looking at the sections on the pay stub for “Before Tax Income” and “After Tax Income”, and feeling put upon. That was then my always-sharp-witted mother reminded me of the discussion of Obama’s speech we had had a few weeks prior in a maternal, “I-told-you-so”, way; she pointed at the bus we drove by, the bus that I rode to work in, and said, “You didn’t build that.” I’d like to say that it satisfied my indignation about having been “cheated”, but it took a few weeks of self-reflection before I really started to grasp the breadth and depth of what society and the government really provides. I’m still not particularly happy about paying taxes, but I recognize now, in more than an abstract sense, that taxes are a necessary part of living in a society that has a functioning economy and robust infrastructure.

Just World Theory and Millionaires

The principle that we want to believe that we are more reponsible for our own success than we actually are applies in a very measurable way to the very rich. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at UC Irvine, explains some of the results of his research in an amazing TEDx talk. One of his conclusions, and by far the most interesting in the context of American individualism, is that “we rationalize advantage by convincing ourselves we deserve it.”

He did an experiment in his doctoral research at UC Berkeley wherein two participants played a slightly modified version of Monopoly, where one was randomly selected to be “rich”, getting twice the starting money, twice the money passing go, and rolling two dice, and the other was “poor”. The rich players were much more aggressive in their playing, banging their pieces on the board, using gestures that would be flagged for “unnecessary celebration” on a football field, and even eating more of the provided snacks. Furthermore, when asked about their performance after the round, “they talked about how they’d earned their success, even though the game was blatantly rigged, and their win should have been seen as inevitable.”

It is believed that this type of self-delusion stems from what is called the “just-world fallacy”, which is a cognitive bias wherein we assume that the world tends to reward just actions and punish evil actions. Obviously, this is blatantly not reflected in reality, but that doesn’t stop rich people from believing that they somehow deserve their riches, and by extension, those who are poor must have done something evil or wrong to deserve their station.

Believing that you built your own fortune, controlled your own destiny, and pulled yourself up by your bootstraps is a romantic notion, and it ties in with the fallacious belief that good actions are rewarded, and if you seem to have been rewarded by life, you must have done something good. But this is not a just world in which we live, and rugged individualism is simply a fantasy.

Simple Math

If you still don’t believe me, allow me to paint you two pictures. The first is a young boy, born in Seattle in the mid-1950s. He has relatively wealthy parents, and is able to go to a private school which has one of the most cutting edge computer labs of any prep school in America. He works tirelessly, learning to program with the assistance of the father of one of his friends, who is an executive at a local computer corporation, skipping math classes to write code. He gets a job fixing bugs, and when the company folds, secures another job writing a payroll program in exchange for computer time. He scores well on his SATs, gets into Harvard, and eventually drops out to start his own business. You know him as Bill Gates, currently the richest man in the world.

Before I analyze Gates’ story, let me finish my second tableau: a young boy in Detroit, raised by a single mother working three minimum wage jobs to pay for food, rent, and electricity, is just as intelligent and hardworking as Gates. His school, due to budget cuts, is unable to afford computer classes, so the boy saves his money for five months to buy a crappy secondhand laptop from a family friend. Every day after school, he heads to the library and teaches himself to program, but the library closes at 6 due to budget cuts. He’s unable to spend as much time as he would like on learning to code, and his obsession takes a toll on his classwork, and since his mother is unable to afford even an SAT prep book, he does badly on the test and ends up at community college. Like the public schools, the community college is underfunded and even the discounted tuition is a strain on the boy and his mother. He manages to get an associates’ degree in computer science and makes ends meet freelancing. He’s 25, just as dedicated and intelligent as Gates, but stuck freelancing.

The only difference in these two stories is the circumstance. Had Bill Gates been raised by a single mother in Detroit, it’s unlikely he would be the richest man in the world. Our society is not a meritocracy and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a lie that the successful embrace to feel superior and that the poor tell themselves to keep up hope.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for our Detroit hero to become the next Bill Gates, but it’s incredibly unlikely. Those who are rich overwhelmingly benefited from the situation in which they were born into, and those who are poor have a ceiling constructed over them by their circumstances.

It’s simple math: the harder it is for you to put in time doing something, the less you will do it, and the less likely you will succeed doing it. If you are born into a situation in which you can do something that you want to do, and you can do well in school, and can afford an Ivy League education, you’re much more likely to succeed than someone who has not had the same opportunities as you.


Individualism is a dangerous lie that fosters a lack of empathy in the rich and a false hope in the poor. It is unfortunate that such a fallacious concept seems to be innate in our American culture, because it leads to a society in which those who are successful think that they are entitled to their success, and they owe nothing to the government or society, when in actuality those two bodies made it possible for their success in the first place.

A sea change in culture is rare and difficult, and frankly I’m not optimistic that we as a society will recognize how deluded we are when it comes to success and the immense divide between rich and poor. That being said, small, concrete steps can be taken to aid the poor who are in hopeless situations, and a change in political rhetoric from one of entitlement to one of gratitude is not out of reach by any means. As a society, change may happen slowly, but it must at least happen.

I leave you with Obama’s next sentence in that fated speech:

“[W]hen we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media and checking out “On Flag Burning“, another essay I wrote on dissent, free speech, and Ferguson.

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  • Ilan Schlomo

    Ah, my good Sean. You have awaken memories which I thought were eternally asleep. For one, I am reminded of my childhood in the burgeoning Jewish state. Right now I can feel the hot sand pressing against my feet as I walk along the pristine beaches of Tel-Aviv. It was along one of those beaches that I built with my own two hands and with saintly conviction what would become the finest gallery of amateur Biblical art in recent history.

    In your article you wish to dispute that people can be successful without help, but this is not true. I built that gallery entirely by myself. I had no help (unless you count the donation of amateur art by my senile Uncle Ephraim, who later thought he discovered oil in the public swimming pool.) There was no government support; I had no mother, father, or teacher.

    But I loved my dear Israel so much that I used the money I made to support the creation of a strong Israeli government. I paid for the fruition of our dreams. And in every way I have been rewarded for payment.

    Herbert Hoover– Yaweh bless his soul– popularized the term Rugged Individualism, and I have to say that his policies were very beneficial for America. It was during his administration that the the US and world Economy took off. In America at that time, all people lived like Rabbai Avner after he actually found oil near the Golan Heights.

    It was not until October 29, 1929, when FDR crashed the WallMarket that people began to suffer. Government reached its sticky hands into the pockets of Americans and removed a greedy sum. This is when we lost jobs and hope.

    It is easy to understand why you would think Rugged Individualism is a bad thing, because the Hoover and Roosevelt administration were consecutive, but you must keep your historical facts straight.