Discussion paper

DP19061 The Moral Values of "Rugged Individualism"

The United States is among the most individualistic societies in the world. However, unlike Western European individualism, which is imbued with moral universalism, America's "rugged individualism" is instead particularistic. We link this distinctive cultural configuration to the country's frontier history. The frontier favored self-reliance, but also rewarded cooperation, which could only be sustained through strong, local group identities. We show that counties with longer frontier history are more particularistic, displaying stronger opposition to federal taxes relative to state taxes, stronger communal values, less charitable giving to distant counties, and fewer online friendships with people in distant counties. At the same time, connections across counties display assortative matching on frontier history, highlighting the important role of culture in bridging disparate areas of the country. Overall, our results shed new light on moral values and the divergence of American and European individualism.


Bazzi, S, M Fiszbein and M Garcia Gonzalez (2024), ‘DP19061 The Moral Values of "Rugged Individualism"‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 19061. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp19061