09/10/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Individualism or Independence?

Back in March, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan inveighed against government assistance: "We don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives." Ryan also espouses a libertarian philosophy of limited government that allows people to pursue wealth and economic success free of government regulation and taxation. Ryan is utterly representative of his party: a philosophy of personal independence and economic individualism pervades today's GOP and its Tea Party allies. However, independence and individualism are not the same. In fact, the GOP's embrace of individualism is inconsistent with independence.

Economic individualism tells the government to step aside so that people can earn as much money as possible and do whatever they want with their money. The rewards of economic success should be virtually unlimited. Such individualism says little about how one earns or uses that wealth or about the societal impacts when such wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Economic individualism is consistent with exploitative workplaces, unlimited money in politics, environmental degradation, community disinvestment and outsourcing, extremes of wealth and poverty, and declining economic mobility.

When conservatives celebrate the small, self-made business owner or invoke the views of the American Founders, they are really appealing to independence, not individualism. Founders like Thomas Jefferson favored limited government because they valued independence.

Independence is the ability to govern oneself, to not be beholden for one's life or livelihood to another individual or group. Jefferson valued the independence of the small, self-sufficient yeoman farmer or artisan, who lived frugally and was not beholden to employers, merchants, or government. And independence was not really an end in itself -- the independent farmer or artisan was likely to be a more virtuous, public-spirited citizen who could think for himself and perceive the common good of society rather than have his interests and views shaped by powerful special interests who held political and economic sway over him. Jefferson thus feared not just tyrannical government but also a commercially-oriented society of manufacturers and laborers where some individuals were utterly dependent on others for their livelihood: "Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition."

What conservatives conveniently overlook is that this ideal of independence presupposes limits not only on government but also on the wealth and power of economic actors. Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that "no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself." And, indeed, Jefferson himself, in a 1785 letter to James Madison, advocated lessening economic inequality through a system of progressive taxation.