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Rep. Paul Ryan and the Myth of Rugged Individualism

Republicans may be skeptics when it comes to Darwin, but they warmly embrace Social Darwinism, the theory that, if natural selection chooses winners and losers through evolution, then it is reasonable to apply "survival of the fittest" to all aspects of human society.  Leading right wing intellectual and gubernatorial hopeful Andre Bauer recently demonstrated how to apply this theory in practice when he suggested that government assistance to poor people is ill-advised as it will only encourage them to "breed", like stray animals.

Republicans who are on message adjust the argument slightly.  They’re willing to say, as Rep. Paul Ryan does, that people who can’t help themselves and are "down on their luck" should have a government safety net, though we have to be careful not to "turn that safety net into a hammock".   (I will be sure to pass that message along to one of the many homeless people sleeping on the streets of our nation’s capitol–those cardboard boxes are looking a mite too comfy).  Ryan insists that "the nucleus of our economy and our society is the individual, not the government."

Now there are mindless, empty slogans, and there are mindless, empty slogans. And then there’s Ryan’s claim that we are all rugged individuals making it on our own (except for those homeless people living it up on the government dole).   Even rubbing together a couple of brain cells to produce sentient thought demonstrates the emptiness of Ryan’s claim.

We’re all about individualism, huh?  Even Rep. Ryan’s own biography reveals the ugly truth.  It notes that he graduated from Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville and Miami University in Ohio.  I’m guessing Rep. Ryan didn’t teach himself at either institution (or maybe he did, I guess I shouldn’t assume).  I’m going to go out even further on a limb and posit that the schools he attended were likely physical structures, as were the classrooms he sat in.  Unless he built them himself, his individualist thesis unravels further. (I’m further guessing that Ryan himself didn’t actually type the text of his biography…but perhaps real individualists also know how to delegate?)  Even the English language necessary to create the words needed to convey Ryan’s accomplishments was created by someone else.

Fast forward to 2010. Rugged individualist Paul Ryan, having emerged fully formed from a birth that required no other person’s efforts, goes to work each day on Capitol Hill.  He almost certainly drives along a road paved by hands other than his own.  Or perhaps he’s a real socialist and climbs aboard a Metro system constructed by others.  (When he goes home to his district, perhaps he flaps hs arms and waits for a really strong wind).  When he gets to work, he walks into a beautiful domed building that others conceived and built (including some slave laborers, by the way–maybe that doesn’t count?).  Since Rep. Ryan is a real John Wayne type, it’s possible that he never gets hungry, but if he does, he probably eats food raised, cultivated, processed and perhaps prepared by hands not attached to his robustly individual body.  Let’s not even get into what happens if Rep. Ryan ever has to use the bathroom (probably not an outhouse he put together in his spare time and outfitted with spare parts lying around his office–and I’m guessing he doesn’t have his own self-contained sewage disposal system).

Just about everything we do in life depends on someone else–usually on many others.  What we eat, how we learn, how we travel, where we work, how we raise our families, how we shop–we don’t do any of these things on our own.  I don’t know anyone who grows their own food, builds their own house, crafts their own car, constructs their own highway system.  How many of us are purely self-taught?  Any of us?  Few of us have personal armies, police forces, or fire departments (and even if we did, they’d still be composed of individuals other than ourselves).

Rep. Ryan is just carrying on the proud Republican tradition of pretending that we all rise or fall on our own merits, never availing ourselves of the benefits of anything done by others, unless we’re on welfare.  It’s a false proposition and it’s a dumb one.  It’s not just anti-government, it’s anti-social.  One of the great advances in human society, one that is the building block for just about every notable human achievement, was the decision to live in groups.  Our ancestors formed tribes for the same reason that we have a society and, yes, that most hated of hateds, a government (that employs and pays Rep. Ryan, by the way): to make life better, less dangerous, more sane, easier.  If Rep. Ryan and the rest of the Republican party wants to go back to rugged individualists diligently rubbing together two sticks on the savannah, rejecting the indignity of taking a handout from anyone else and living lives devoid of contact with other humans, he has my blessings.  The rest of us think society and human interaction is a pretty good thing, I write on this computer that someone else put together, with the hopes that an internet others devised will carry my words to another human or humans who I am glad to share this world with.

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Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at