For as long as there has been an “American Dream,” there have likely been people who insisted that it was dead. But it’s funny. No one really knows what the “American Dream” actually is.
In recent years we have been told over and over (by the real estate industry mostly) that the American Dream is home ownership. Images of track housing and children come to mind. This is the middle class. Two cars and a mortgage. Congrats, you’re living the “dream.”
But I’ve never bought this idea of the American Dream. The dream I thought was uniquely American was one in which the average person lived largely free of coercion, either from a bank, other people, or from government. One need not own a house to live this dream (though it helps if one does it right – it can be a nightmare if one does it wrong), and one need not be particularly rich. The American Dream is (as I see it) about the average person living independently. About being one’s own person to the degree possible. About being a human being, not someone else’s property, either explicitly or through debt slavery.
There is the element of upward mobility also. That through hard work one can improve one’s lot in life. That in this country opportunity abounds and that ingenuity is rewarded. Build a better mousetrap, and you will be rewarded. What’s more, people won’t resent your gains because you made the world a better place through your innovation. It is an optimistic vision of the future, and one which is deeply “democratic” in the very best sense of the word.
I don’t think mine is a particularly unique take. I think many people share this general disposition even now. But our system of crony capitalism, which has blossomed over the past two decades, has taken the wind out of many people’s sails. As such, it has also taken the wind out of the economy.
One of the best ways to determine whether an economy is on the rise is whether the people are playing offense or defense. Is it in one’s best interest to go out and hustle, or is it more rational to get what one can get and hunker down?
Europe, with its extensive welfare state and after having suffered two catastrophic wars, has been playing defense for a long time. But we, emerging from the Second World War, saw opportunity around every corner. Even in the face of a significant Soviet threat, we had a generally positive disposition. We worked hard. We played hard. We still had the spirit of the frontier flowing through our veins. We weren’t afraid of mending fences. We weren’t afraid of getting dirt under our nails.
But we have lost a good bit of this spirit. The further we as a nation are from the do it yourself world, the more urban we become, the more defensive we have become. We aren’t playing for the touchdown anymore. We’re just trying to hold onto yardage.