I’ve heard many people recently who like to say that the American dream is slipping away from the majority of Americans. Usually this is in reference to the fact that people are losing their jobs and homes. Sometimes they refer to the fact that “big business” makes it impossible for the “little guy” to earn a meaningful living. Other times some will say that “the American dream of becoming a millionaire is impossible for most of us.”
In every case, those making such claims are wrong. The first reason they’re wrong is simply that what they’re describing is not the American dream at all. The second reason they’re wrong is one that’s much more important and grave for the future of our nation.
They’re wrong simply because for many citizens of this great nation, the American dream is dead.
To understand the two reasons why these people are wrong, we must first understand what the American dream really is. Why have millions of people of different nationalities, religions and races left the places that they’ve called home to participate in this great American experiment? Surely it could not have been simply for material goods or the promise of a job?
To quote James Truslow Adams, who coined the phrase in 1931:
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
In other words, the American dream to which Adams wasn’t referring isn’t just the ability of people in the United States to own a home. But rather it is the ability to obtain the greatest possible life for ourselves. It is this drive and motivation for betterment that has made this country as prosperous as it has been. Certainly having a job and owning a home are a benefit of pursuing the American dream, but they are not the basis upon which that dream is built.
The dream is built upon freedom.
By being free, Americans have historically been able to pursue their own interests without fear of government intrusion. This has usually meant working hard and advancing ourselves through that hard work. America prospered and the dream flourished because all men were fully capable to keep what they earned, believe what they wanted and, if unhappy with their lot in life, to make it better.
The American dream has never been about making the quick buck nor having the right to a home or a job. These were all things which had to be gained through hard work. The American dream developed from the fact that everyone could earn a fortune, could have a good job and could own land.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American and Europe were different because in Europe money was meaningless. The elites were always guaranteed to maintain their status, while the poor could never hope to advance themselves. Americans saw the wealthy and decided to emulate them, not through malicious envy but by following their examples to achieve success. This is why Americans historically despise the elites. It is impossible to elevate oneself to the status of elite. But through years of attempts to emulate the European model –the same model that our Founders broke the shackles of- that American dream has died.
This is not to say that it is forever gone. After all, the American dream is an idea. Ideas never die. They can be co-opted, manipulated and turned on their head so that they no longer resemble their origins. This is what’s led to such a misunderstanding of the concept. But it is possible to return an idea to its original meaning. It takes work.
This American dream, however, also has a practical element to it. That element, as stated previously, is freedom. We must be free to guide the course of our lives. It’s this practical side to the dream that has currently been lost.
And we have only our politicians and ourselves to blame.
Eighty years of living the liberal dream have provided a wealth of “free” services. Free education, free money when we retire, free medical care when we get old, etc. But there’s nothing in life that comes without charge, especially from government. The cost of these services is paid in both the fruits of our labor in the form of taxes as well as in a loss of freedom in the form of tighter government control. Because to be able to better ourselves, we must be free to choose how we go about accomplishing that goal.
The government monopoly on the school system has created generations without the drive to pursue the dream. Welfare has created an entitlement class which believes it has a right to get something for nothing. Social security and Medicare have led us to believe that it’s not necessary to practice forethought in regards to our living situation when we wish to retire. The government backed mortgage industry has made us think that we deserve a home, whether we can afford it or not. The government backed student loan industry has diminished the worth of a higher education, by funneling the failures from its public school system into higher education. Affirmative action has been used as a blunt instrument to require businesses to disregard whether a candidate is more deserving of a job. Regulation have stifled the job market and demonized business to a point near Randian levels. Excessive taxation has taken money from our pockets, where we could use it for our own needs, and squandered it on pet projects and attempts to buy votes.
The list goes on and on.
I see a bright note upon which to end, however. The push for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid radical liberal agenda has awakened a mighty beast in the American public. In their attempt to take over that which we all hold nearest and dearest – the right to choose our own medical care – the elites in our society have forced us to open our eyes to the loss of American exceptionalism and the American dream that has propelled us through the years. The townhall protests, the tea parties and the elections in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts are evidence that the work of our Founding Fathers from so long ago need not be in vain.
What we’re seeing today is that the American dream may not necessarily be dead, but only on life support. All it needs is for us to bring it back from the brink, to draw it from the light. How ironic that an attempt to drastically reform our health care system should be the impetus to save this idea from death.