If we understand what has made America the most prosperous nation on earth we can restore that prosperity anytime it is in jeopardy. The answer to understanding America’s economic success is found in the idea of “The American Dream”.
Historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book Epic of America:
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, also 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.”
What struck me about this quote was the part where Adams says that the American Dream is not just a desire for nice cars or money, but rather the dream of a place where every person can reach his or her highest potential and be judged on their achievements regardless of their circumstances or station in life.
This dream is why millions have migrated to the United States. It is a dream that started with America’s freedom from the King to determine her own destiny. It is a dream that was not fully realized until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made America face her hypocrisy in the face of a declaration that “all men are created equal”.
MLK wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. . . . when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
So what is it about the US that makes it a place where anyone can chase the American Dream? The answer is found in the declaration that all men are endowed by their creator with the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the economic and personal freedom to have a passion, work hard, take a risk and achieve the improbable. The American Dream is Chris Gardner and The Pursuit of Happyness. The American Dream is Rocky Balboa. The American Dream is my father, a guy who once lived out of his car while working at a tire store, building a successful business out of sweat equity and determination.
So what is it that makes America the “land of opportunity”? It is the same principle of limited government and maximum individual liberty that allowed America’s wealth to multiply 700 fold in the last 200 years. Thomas Jefferson understood that:
“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government.”
“Wise” and “frugal” aren’t words that I would associate with our government today. So I guess it’s no surprise that government increasingly regulates men’s pursuits for them and then takes the bread from their labor. Some argue that a company like Microsoft could not be born today out of a dreamer’s garage. If that’s true, then it is tragic, not just for the loss of innovation, and not just because of the billionaire philanthropist like Bill Gates who won’t be forged, but because of the tens of thousands who will not be employed at that company, nor the many thousands more not employed by that company’s vendors and partners.
There is no arguing against trickle-down economics. You can see it in America’s wealthy, who have offered a product or service that people want and created economic benefits to those who helped them do it.
The reason we face such stagnation in our economy is that business is not sure if it has friend or foe in the government. The burden of dealing with current taxes and regulation is only trumped by the fear of what may come in the future. Fear stifles the passion of the whiz kid in his dorm room ready to launch the next “Facebook” idea. Fear paralyzes the CEO of a Fortune 100 company deciding whether to acquire or expand. Fear keeps the local hardware store owner from taking out a loan to move into a larger facility and hire 5 new employees.
We must again unleash the entrepreneur, the business owner and the dreamer in America. We must trust that with the conditions of free enterprise the American people will do what they have always done best: invent the light bulb and design the first assembly line, create the next transformative technology and the means to share it with the world. America is not out of great ideas. We can be the nation that dreamers migrate to in order to share their passion and genius with the world. If the government would but get out of the way, the entrepreneurs will do the rest. Our founders knew that “when the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty.” Fear and the American Dream are incompatible. The good news is, we don’t need our government to fear violent revolution from the people, they need only fear us at the ballot box.