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What ‘Bowling Alone’ author Robert Putnam has to say about the ‘Utah advantage’

‘Self-interest, rightly understood’ is what has driven Utah’s rugged individualism and communitarian values

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This painting by John Moser features pioneer wagon train. Author Robert Putnam suggests the wagon train is the image of balance between rugged individualism and communitarian values.


Much time is spent in our divided society debating issues or principles that compete, contrast or are in conflict. For example, rule of law is often pitted against compassion when debating immigration issues. That is a false choice. Rule of law and compassion are compatible principles. This week I recognized just how compatible, and essential, rugged individualism and compassionate communitarianism are to America. 

In my “Therefore, what?” podcast, I interviewed Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett about their book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” We discussed the contrast and congruence of self-interest and community interest.

Putnam led out with a historic look at the westward expansion of the United States. “For most Americans, individualism is captured in the mythology of movies; we think of the lone cowboy, Gary Cooper, or somebody riding across the West on horseback and opening the West. There certainly was, without a doubt, an important element of that rugged individualism, not only in the opening of the frontier, but also in the American culture.”

“But an even more important symbol of the opening of the West was the wagon train. The wagon train meant opening up the West, not as one isolated individual, one isolated cowboy, but as a group of people moving together.” 

The first influential outsider to notice the importance of community in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French observer, came to America in the 1830s. He wrote extensively about how Americans were constantly forming associations. He saw how important cooperation was to Americans. Putnam explained, “Remember, he was visiting America in the 1830s and 1840. Even at that stage, he could see, and he was telling his European readers for whom he was writing, ‘Look, America is amazing. They’re successful, because they cooperate so much.’”

Putnam also recognized, as de Tocqueville before him, that rugged individualism was central to the soul of the young nation. “Tocqueville, in the very same writings, invented the term individualism,” he noted. “So, he was aware, at the very origin of thinking about community in America, that America also was a very individualistic place.”

Then putting aside the false choice of self-interest versus community-interest, Putnam stated, “The term Tocqueville used to reconcile those two halves of American culture was ‘self-interest, rightly understood.’ Americans did follow their self-interest, but self-interest rightly understood ... means you also had to worry about other people’s interest.” 

Societies thrive when self-interest, rightly understood, leads to communities that empower individuals to thrive and trusts the better angels of individual nature to come together for the common good.

Putnam brought the conversation full circle to the early American West, stressing that even in a place like Utah, rugged individualism did and continues to play an important part in the culture and success of the state. But, he concluded, “What’s most distinctive about Utah, the Utah advantage, so to speak, is that very strong importance of community as embodied, frankly, in those wagon trains that finally settled around Salt Lake.”

Self-interest and communitarian-interest serve to strengthen society in meaningful ways. Balancing the two is always the test. At a time when division runs deep, narcissism is in vogue and society seems destined to deteriorate, self-interest, rightly understood, should be part of our local and national dialogue.

In an October 2020 address, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke of several keys to strong and sustainable societies. He warned against the narcissistic nature and tendencies of rugged individuals to disconnect from each other and from God. He cautioned, “Nevertheless, when secularization separates personal and civic virtue from a sense of accountability to God, it cuts the plant from its roots. Reliance on culture and tradition alone will not be sufficient to sustain virtue in society. When one has no higher god than himself and seeks no greater good than satisfying his own appetites and preferences, the effects will be manifest in due course.”

He gave an example of self-interest, rightly understood, as a key to successful and sustainable societies. He shared how, “Editor-at-large Gerard Baker wrote a column earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal honoring his father, Frederick Baker, on the occasion of his father’s 100th birthday. Baker speculated about the reasons for his father’s longevity but then added these thoughts:

“‘While we may all want to know the secret to a long life, I often feel we’d be better off devoting more time to figuring out what makes a good life, whatever span we’re allotted. Here, I’m confident I know my father’s secret. 

“‘He is from an era when life was defined primarily by duty, not by entitlement; by social responsibilities, not personal privileges. The primary animating principle throughout his century has been a sense of obligation — to family, God, country.’”

Self-interest, rightly understood, is what enables us to comprehend how interconnected and interdependent we actually are. 

“Self-interest, rightly understood, is what enables us to comprehend how interconnected and interdependent we actually are.” — Boyd Matheson

I have always loved the poem, “House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss. A few stanzas stand out as perhaps a simple solution to our isolated and individualistic society:

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn

In the place of their self-content;

There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,

In a fellowless firmament;

There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths

Where highways never ran-

But let me live by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road

Where the race of men go by-

The men who are good and the men who are bad,

As good and as bad as I.

I would not sit in the scorner’s seat

Nor hurl the cynic’s ban-

Let me live in a house by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road

By the side of the highway of life,

The men who press with the ardor of hope,

The men who are faint with the strife,

But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,

Both parts of an infinite plan-

Let me live in a house by the side of the road

And be a friend to man. 

Narcissism, division, polarization and isolation are a cancer to the individual soul and kill cohesive societies. Our future depends on setting cynicism, scorn and contempt aside and deeply connecting with our fellow travelers here on planet earth. We can each pursue or own version of the American dream while being a true friend to all who pass by.

Rugged individualism and compassionate communitarianism are compatible American principles. They are actually the secret sauce for the success and sustainability of our society — a recipe the American people should return to today.