The bottle is now labeled libertarianism. But its content is nothing new; it is what in the nineteenth century, and up to the time of Franklin Roosevelt, was called liberalism the advocacy of limited government and a free economy. (If you think of it, you will see that there is a redundancy in this formula, for a government of limited powers would have little chance of interfering with the economy.) The liberals were robbed of their time-honored name by the unprincipled socialists and near socialists, whose avidity for prestige words knows no bounds. So, forced to look for another and distinctive label for their philosophy, they came up with libertarianism good enough but somewhat difficult for the tongue.
They might have done better by adopting the older and more meaningful name of individualism, but they bypassed it because it too had been more than sullied by its opponents …
The mudslinging started long ago, but the more recent and best-known orgy occurred in the early part of the century when the heaven-by-way-of-government muckrakers attached to individualism a value-impregnated adjective rugged. The word itself has no moral content; when applied to a mountain it is purely descriptive, when applied to an athlete it carries a favorable connotation. But, in the literary usage of the muckrakers, it designated what in plain language would be called skulduggery. It has no more to do with a philosophy than has any form of indecent behavior. Thus, the rugged individualist was the fellow who threatened to foreclose the mortgage on the old homestead if the fair damsel refused his hand in marriage; or he was the speculator who made use of the stock market to rob widows and orphans; or he was the fat and florid buccaneer who lavished diamonds on his ladylove. He was, in short, a fellow whose conscience presented no obstacle to his inclination to grab a dollar, and who recognized no code of ethics that might curb his appetites. If there is any difference between an ordinary thief and a rugged individualist, it is in the fact that the latter almost always keeps within the letter of the law, even if he has to rewrite the law to do so …
Rugged individualism was a propaganda phrase of the first order. It was most useful in bringing the soak-the-rich urgency to a boiling point.
The phrase gained currency at the time when the leveling mania was fighting its way into the American tradition, before the government, making full use of the new power it had acquired under the income tax law, took hold of the individual by the scruff of the neck and made a mass-man out of him. It is an odd fact that the socialist is quite in agreement with the rugged individualist in advocating the use of political force to achieve ones good; the difference between them is only in determining the incidence, or the recipient, of government-given good. It is doubtful whether the robber barons (a synonym for rugged individualists) ever used the government, before the income tax, with anything like the vigor and success of the socialists. At any rate, the stigma of ruggedness has stuck, so that the collectivist intellectuals, who ought to know better, are unaware of the difference between thievery and individualism.
Original Smear Words
The besmirching of individualism, however, had a good start before the modern era. The original defamers were not socialists but solid proponents of status, the upholders of special privilege, the mercantilists of the nineteenth century. Their opposition stemmed in part from the fact that individualism leaned heavily on the burgeoning doctrine of the free market, of laissez-faire economics, and as such presented a challenge to their preferred position. So they dug into the age-old bag of semantics and came up with two smear words: selfish and materialistic. Just like the later socialists, they had no compunction about twisting the truth to suit their argument.
Laissez-faire that is to say, an economy free of political interventions and subventions holds that the instinct of self-interest is the motive power of productive effort. Nothing is produced except by human labor, and labor is something the human being is most parsimonious about; if he could satisfy his desires without effort, he would gladly dispense with it. That is why he invents labor-saving devices. But he is so constituted that every gratification gives rise to new desire, which he proceeds to satisfy by investing the labor he saved. He is insatiable. The log cabin that was palace enough in the wilderness seems quite inadequate as soon as the pioneer accumulates a surplus of necessaries, and then he begins to dream of curtains and pictures, inside plumbing, a school or a church, to say nothing of baseball or Beethoven. Self-interest overcomes his aversion to labor in his constant drive to improve his circumstances and widen his horizon …
It is in the free market that self-interest finds its finest expression; that is a cardinal point in individualism. If the market is regularly raided, by robbers or the government, and the safety of property is impaired, the individual loses interest in production, and the abundance of things men live by shrinks. Hence, it is for the good of society that self-interest in the economic sphere be allowed to operate without hindrance.
But self-interest is not selfishness. Self-interest will impel the manufacturer to improve upon his output so as to attract trade, while selfishness will prompt him to seek the special privileges and state favor that in the end destroy the very system of economic freedom on which he depends. The worker who tries to improve his lot by rendering better service could hardly be called selfish; the description rather fits the worker who demands that he be paid for not working. The subsidy seeker is selfish, and so is every citizen who uses the law to enrich himself at the expense of other citizens.
See the article here:
What Individualism Is Not