What is the American Dream?
I suppose that we all have our own unique concept of what is the American Dream. And it is probably just not one thing but a bunch of things; a house in the suburbs, a steady job, good health, a solid education, a secure retirement. Or maybe yours is a pre-war apartment in Manhattan, a challenging job, and third-base seats at Yankee Stadium. Or maybe yours is a family farm, hard work beginning at dawn with Sunday morning off to go to the church in town.
But if your American Dream is to play in the Big Leagues or make it big in Hollywood, prepare to be disappointed. Many a high school baseball player or thespian may aspire to achieve great personal or professional heights. And they are welcome to try. If you don’t try its guaranteed you won’t achieve your dream. But many others will also be trying to gain a few cherished positions so very few will actually achieve that goal. You may have to redefine your Dream. Maybe it’s the minor leagues, or a regional summer theater. Maybe it’s rec league baseball or a community theater group.
Whatever your American Dream is, you know that you have to work hard to achieve your goal. Our ancestors certainly knew how hard it was. It was hard work to make enough money to live on and set aside a little for educating their children while saving for a rainy day. It was hard to study at night after a hard day’s work to improve knowledge and to better themselves. And it was especially difficult when they realized that they might not be able to achieve that promised American Dream themselves, but that reality meant they must work even harder so that their children would have a better chance.
And many millions of people working hard to achieve their individual versions of the American Dream helped to forge a great nation. Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher, said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Likewise, it was not some great economic plan handed down by a benevolent monarch or collectivist central authority that made America the strongest most prosperous nation on Earth. No, it was the efforts of millions of ordinary (and a few extraordinary) Americans striving to achieve their individual and unique American Dreams.
This is how the free market economy works and how the free market gives people the ability to achieve their American Dream. America gives people the opportunity to achieve their Dream but it does not guarantee that anyone will achieve it. It must be earned. It is the American Dream – not the American Gift.
It is the duty of the American government to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to achieve the Dream. This is the key principle underlying the American Social Contract that constitutes our society. But there is a problem. Some people lack the opportunity to achieve their American Dream – some because they are lazy or shiftless – but others through no fault of their own. The progressive Democrats are correct, there are many defects in the American system that blocks people from achieving their dream: lousy schools, unfair tax laws, and -yes- prejudice and racism.
These are difficult problems to solve. And the progressive left believes that everyone in America should have their dream, so they want to give people those dreams. But this is the American Gift, not the American Dream. By giving people the dream-like outcomes the Dream, itself, is destroyed. And not only that, you destroy the system that made the Dream possible – the striving to achieve that dream, perhaps over several generations.
Giving dream-like outcomes to people who have not worked hard and productively to achieve the Dream undermines America in two ways. First, you are taking a portion of the American Dream already achieved by people that worked hard to achieve their Dream in order to give to others, thereby undermining the motivation of the achievers to continue to strive to make their Dreams better or to create new Dreams that they want to achieve. And second, by giving people the outcomes achieved by hard work through political means instead of productive effort you undermine their motivation to work hard. Why work hard to achieve a difficult goal if you can use your vote (earned by others on your behalf) to get politicians to take a portion of the Dream of others and give it to you? As a result, the motivation of everyone to work hard to achieve goals is diminished, as is the productivity of the entire country.
Because the value of the American Dream isn’t the house in the suburbs or whatever might be your dream. It is the effort that is put into achieving that goal. That is what made America the most prosperous country in the world. And if people in certain groups or people in general are blocked from achieving their dreams because their opportunity is being blocked and frustrated by a flawed system, then the correct response must be to break down those barriers so that they can put their productivity to work to achieve their goals and to make America even stronger in the process.
In our complex, fast-changing society achieving the American Dream seems to be harder than ever. Wealthy elites seem to horde the key elements to achieving the American Dream leaving only scraps for the middle-class and even less for the poor. But many of the obstacles that existed in the past have been eliminated or reduced substantially. Discrimination against minorities and women in education and employment is against the law. Concepts like affirmative action and Title IX have helped level the playing field. More work needs to be done but we are making progress.
While it is true that income inequality has increased in America, much of this increase is explained by the changes in family structure. The explosive growth of single parent families is a principal cause of this inequality and this cultural shift, and the entitlements that incentivize this behavior, make it difficult to achieve the American Dream - for this generation of single parents and for the next as well. Dr. Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies notes that people who follow “the sequence” (graduate, get a job, wait until married to have children) are much less likely to be poor (which is a good way to start working toward your American Dream).
The outcomes from chasing your dreams may not “look like America” in that not every company or organization or government office has a proportionate percentage of each minority or gender. But that is the whole point of equality of opportunity. People choose their own paths according to their own preferences, so the outcomes are naturally different. The only way to make every company and organization faithfully represent the racial and gender structure of the country is through force; making people take jobs they don’t want (or blocking someone whose identity is over represented) in order to fill a quota.
So you have to take away liberty and equality of opportunity in order to provide everyone with a government-determined version of the American Dream that applies equally to everyone. It's starting to sound a lot like the Soviet Dream or the Venezuelan Dream. But the Soviet Dream was Stalin’s Dream, and the Venezuelan Dream was Chavez’s Dream. And the Chinese Dream is President Xi’s dream. The American Dream is your dream.