USA Today recently tried to come up with a price tag for the “American Dream,” and somehow concluded that it costs $130,000 per year. Since only about 1 in 8 households pull down that kind of income, the American Dream is clearly slipping out of our grasp. The darn One Percenters went and stole it from us!
The specifics of USA Today’s formula are debatable – and in some cases illustrate the absurdity of making such calculations on a nationwide basis, when variables such as the cost of a new home vary so much between different regions – but right in the very same article are quotes from people who dispute the notion that the American Dream can be given a dollar value at all.
The article begins by defining the Dream as “the belief that with hard work and the freedom to pursue your destiny you can achieve success and provide better opportunities for your children.” That’s a rather broad concept to back up with a spreadsheet. Is there no way to achieve the American Dream while living in a rented condominium, rather than a $275,000 house? (That’s the figure USA Today used to calculate that your American Dream-compatible salary had better include enough cheddar to cover a $17,062 annual mortgage payment, and even then, they’re assuming a 10% downpayment and 4% interest.)
Some would vigorously contest the notion of reducing such a grand concept as American fulfillment to a material equation, a bill of sale with each line item carefully researched. It’s about more than just buying stuff, isn’t it? Consumerism is not the essence of citizenship. The American Dream is a journey, not a destination, and where you started matters a great deal.
Materialism and consumerism are easy to criticize on a full stomach, of course. As with America’s remarkable crisis of obesity among the poor, it’s a mark of affluence that our society is rich enough to lament its focus on money and property. Could it not be said that the people streaming across the border in search of a better life are focused on money and property, too? But they’re never criticized for greed. Nor are people who seek to work their way out of poverty into the “middle class,” even though that goal is explicitly materialistic. That’s because a good deal of social commentary boils down to passing judgment on the aspirations of others. Different people can have the same aspiration, but one might be applauded for her ambition, while another is castigated for his greed.
Go back to that topic sentence from the USA Today article: “the belief that with hard work and the freedom to pursue your destiny you can achieve success and provide better opportunities for your children.” That single sentence includes two fairly abstract notions that don’t necessarily have anything to do with material goods, pursuing your destiny and achieving success… but they’re sandwiched between two slices of crunchy toasted realism, “hard work’ and providing better opportunities for your children. Even the person who believes his destiny is to be a great artist has to eat, and put a roof over his head. He has to get his canvas and paint from somewhere.
Far from its popular caricature as the root of all evil, money is actually the essence of freedom – the only high-octane fuel suitable for high-speed pursuit of your individual destiny. There are relatively few strings attached to a dollar bill. You spend it however you wish. If you want to spend it on paint and canvas, feel free. If you prefer a simple life with few material attachments, it’s not difficult to calculate the cost of your basic needs, perhaps furnishing some of them through your own labor and ingenuity by hand-crafting goods, or growing your own food. Then you can work out a form of employment that consumes the smallest amount of your time, in exchange for the modest amount of money you need, freeing you up to invest more time in whatever you find fulfilling.
But you do not have any right to insist that other people feed and clothe you in perpetuity. That is theft, whether you do it yourself with a gun, or vote for people who promise to do it for you. As Abraham Lincoln put it, in a quote used several times throughout Dinesh D’Souza’s outstanding new book America: Imagine a World Without Her, the spirit of enslavement and servitude says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.”
Lincoln explained that this demand is absolutely wrong, regardless of who makes it: “No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” Thanks to money, it is – or should be – less likely that anyone would need to demand bread from the toil of another. Money is the marvelously flexible instrument through which we can compute exactly how much work is needed to earn our daily bread.
The American Dream should include not a smidgen of theft or dependency. You’re not pursuing your destiny or building a dream when you must rely upon the toil of others. Unfortunately, our system is saturated with dependency, including the recent addition of a health care scheme that makes people who earn $60,000 a year dependent upon government subsidies to buy health insurance. And it’s not just people, because we have an array of corporations that could not survive without compulsory subsidies extracted from others. No one involved in such a scheme is truly pursuing his own destiny. But almost all of us are involved in one subsidy scheme or another, these days.
I said above that a dollar bill has relatively few strings on it. Relative to other forms of compensation, that is certainly true. Look at the recent drama over the birth control mandate. Our paychecks emit a veritable spiderweb of strings. All of the huge government programs we participate in have provisions explicitly designed to influence our behavior, as does the tax code. If you want contraceptives without giving your employer and/or the government control over your life, you need to buy them yourself, with dollars that nobody can trace or influence. That is the state of maximum personal freedom.
Alas, it cannot be said that dollar bills are completely free of strings. We should be so lucky! The value of money itself is manipulated, and so is the price of everything we buy. You’re not making a truly free decision to purchase an electric car if the government is contributing $10,000 of other peoples’ money to the sale. The cost of nearly everything is tinkered with in various ways, including hidden taxes that turn every cash-register receipt into a stealth 1040 form.
If you want the best possible environment to pursue the American Dream – a system in which the largest possible number of people enjoy the greatest possible freedom to pursue their own destinies – you should demand the greatest possible freedom for money. You want the largest possible measure of your compensation delivered to you in the form of unencumbered dollars, leaving you free to make your own decisions, based on the best and most accurate pricing information. Both compensation and costs must be as transparent as possible. Essential goods should be as inexpensive as possible. That way, you can take full responsibility for how your valuable capital – your time – is invested.
This allows you to proudly fashion your own version of the American Dream, without other people passing judgment upon your ambitions. The family living a quiet and humble farm life can look at the stylish upwardly-mobile suburban family, and both can shake their heads in wonder, asking “Why would they want to live that way?” Neither family would be obliged to explain themselves to anyone else, but we might hope for a good deal of healthy curiosity in such an atmosphere of universal respect. As things stand right now – in a nation where nobody knows what anything really costs, no one is free to invest the priceless capital of their time as they see fit, and so much of what we earn is seized and redistributed by force – no such universal respect exists.
The increasingly neurotic behavior of our society is an inevitable side effect of its dwindling self-respect. No wonder so many of us are convinced the American Dream is forever out of reach, even as we struggle to define exactly what it means. Worse, many of us seem to be waiting for someone else to define it, and then provide it.