Latest posts by John Engle (see all)
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The American Dream is one of the driving concepts in our country’s national story, one that occupies a special place in the national discourse. It is a sort of national ethos, born out of various statements of the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those words have meant different things to different people, but at their most basic level they all expound the ethos that opportunity for success and hard work will lead to upward personal social mobility, irrespective of racial, religious, or economic background. Yet the Dream is in trouble today.
The political left has been waging war on the idea of the American Dream. They sound off on income inequality and supposed lack of social mobility, arguing that the promise of the American Dream is an empty one. They cite data such as Pew Research’s finding that income inequality has been growing in America since the 1970s. Taken in a vacuum, such a finding would be worrying indeed. But could there be another explanation?
One credible explanation is that a foul mixture of unaffordable social programs and an overly expansive government tax regime has “produced a country of government addicts with an entitlement mentality. These twin maladies have eroded self-reliance, individual initiative and personal accountability.”
Basically, inequality is the product of people becoming “addicted” to government largesse and who become unwilling to work hard, while those who still strive and embrace the promise of the American Dream can still reach the heady heights of opportunity. Rather than worry about income inequality per se, what we should focus on is a policy that “encourages saving and wealth creation, so families can be more independent, more economically secure, and more able to pass that security on to their children.”
The left does not want to promote saving and social mobility. Instead, it favors policies that keep citizens as effective clients of their government charity. That is not the way to promote a healthy, independent citizenry. It is the way to create a nation of serfs.
The problem with a dream is that it is a fragile thing. A niggling doubt or germ of disbelief can sweep it into the wind. Americans began to question the promise of the American Dream during the last great economic downturn in the 1930s: “The Great Depression damaged the self-confidence of the young, and that is beginning to happen now, according to pollsters, sociologists and economists.”
The problem today, however, is even more intractable. America came out of the Great Depression and World War II with a rapidly growing economy and a dominant position in global commerce undreamt of in all of human history. From that tremendous advantage, the American Dream was able to gain a new lease on life.
Today, America’s economic dominance is swiftly being eroded by new rivals in the developing world. Added to that are the troubles of growing debt and an aging population. It is no wonder that faith in the American Dream is fading. That is a terrifying and tragic prospect. It has always been America’s boundless optimism and daring to take risks to achieve greatness that have made it such an exceptional country. Losing the Dream might also cause the loss of that vital dynamism.
To revitalize the American Dream, proponents of liberty must sell it. They need to reclaim the romance that made the Dream such a powerful force in the American psyche. The only way to do that is to promote self-reliance, not dependency.
It will only be through convincing the public that the Dream we cherish can be saved. For the sake of America, and for the sake of the flame of liberty and prosperity, we must succeed in saving the American Dream from oblivion.