Rugged Individualism

My father liked to tell the story of a series of talks given at Denison University in the 1950s by members of the Ohio Self-Made Millionaires Club (or some such name).  The students set up betting pools: at what point during the talk would the speaker reveal that he (it was all men who spoke) was not, in fact, self made?  Someone collected each week, for each millionaire, generally unintentionally, let the cat out of the bag.

The story came to mind this week through two things, Suzanne Mettler’s  op-ed in the New York Times, “Our Hidden Government Benefits” and Elizabeth Warren’s comments during the start of her campaign for Scott Brown’s Senate seat in Massachusetts:

At one point, Warren says:

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

Scratch the surface of anyone who claims to have done it all on their own, and through ‘enlightened self-interest,’ and you will find someone who has used other people for their own advancement.  This is the lie that Ayn Rand and all those who believe in ‘the virtue of selfishness’ propagate: it is the rugged individual who gets things done, and who does it despite society, despite other people.  Not so.  Even our very language is the work of others.  Everything we accomplish is due to the work of others.  Most Rand followers, most everyone, would quickly die if forced to rely only on themselves.

Not “most.”  “All.”

Today, more and more of us are willing to accept belief in our own ability to make it on our own because our government structures much of its aid to us in ways that won’t interfere with our flagrantly false belief that we do it on our own.  Mettler writes:

Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.

Invisible so that we can look down upon those who rely on governmental largess without being forced to face our own.  Invisible so that we don’t have to recognize our own hypocrisy.

Until we can start being honest about how much each of us gets from our communities, movements like the tea party, stoked by people on government dole of some sort themselves but not wanting to admit it or share it with others, will continue.

More critically, not until we can start to honestly face how much we need government as a means of working together for the good of all will we be able to get through our current political and economic crisis.