Myth of the Rugged Individual

Brian KahnThe myth gained power during the late nineteenth century as vast individual fortunes were accumulated by men at the apex of the economic pyramid. A classic example was The Big Four, key investors in the development of America’s transcontinental railroad network: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis Huntington. The endeavor, essential to the development of our nation, received huge goverment subsidies through the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which gifted to the railroads ten square miles of public land for every rail mile built and guaranteed the investors needed funds through government-issued bonds. The engineering that was required to achieve this phenomenal feat was carried out by hundreds of design and construction engineers. And the years of backbreaking, pick-and-shovel labor was done largely by tens of thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers working under the harshest conditions.

But in terms of national mythology, The Big Four emerged as “self-made” men who on their own became titans in railroads, banking, shipping, and politics — instead of talented and fortunate individuals who amassed stunning fortunes through government subsidies and decades of work by tens of thousands.

That romantic and potent myth of the rugged individual — in today’s terms, the “individual entrepreneur” — has a profound impact on American public policy. It influences who among us is considered to be “production,” worthy of government subsidy, to what extent wealthy individuals and businesses are taxed, and what wages workers earn.

–Brian Kahn
Real Common Sense

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