To recognize this, however, is not to encourage concerned citizens to look the other way as their cherished American Dream fades into the sunset. Rather, it is to awaken them to the magnitude of the task before us. The Progressive-Liberal assault on the principles of the Founding that sustain the American Dream has been underway for well over a century. We should not expect to undo it overnight.
Even a survey of the threats to the American Dream as cursory as this one should impress upon the reader the enormity of the challenge we face. No one, for example, should expect any simple fixes when it comes to shoring up the family or reducing dependence on government. Even when the prescriptions are clear—and in the case of the family, they are not—implementing them is never an easy task, and even successful reforms can easily be undone.
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Part I of this report contrasts these two dreams. While the American Dream we all know is about climbing the ladder of opportunity, the new liberal American Dream can best be likened to an escalator of results—everyone hops on and moves up without effort.
Whereas nearly all societies throughout history had hampered the free flow of goods and services and denied men and women the full fruits of their labor, America embraced the revolutionary idea that all are entitled to acquire and possess property. By holding out the promise of just rewards for one’s efforts, America opened up a world of opportunity for all. One’s station in life would no longer be fixed at birth. Fortunes would be made and lost. The American Dream was born.
In the following sections, we look at this equation more closely. We first flesh out the twin pillars of the American Dream by explaining what we mean by economic freedom and a culture of work. We then contrast the true promise of the American Dream—opportunity and prosperity—with the egalitarian pipe dreams that some liberals have tried to substitute for it.
For many people, the story ends here. America is the land of opportunity, and economic freedom is what makes mobility possible. To leave it at that, however, would fail to do full justice to the promise of America. First, this simplified account leaves out the other great benefit that the Founders anticipated their commercial republic would bring: general prosperity and an increase in the standard of living of all. Second, it fails to mention the other all-important factor required for the dream to materialize: a culture of work in which labor is encouraged and celebrated.
In other words, economic freedom is not enough. All that economic freedom can do is set “commerce at perfect liberty” and create the conditions for prosperity. Citizens must still be capable and willing to put in the hard work. Opportunities must be converted into accomplishments. As the great apostle of upward mobility Frederick Douglass explained in his praise of self-made men, “Opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable.” The American Dream requires certain virtues like hard work, perseverance, fortitude, and prudence, as well as a real desire to make it.
In a certain sense, the first threat to the American Dream comes from those who would redefine it as a government-backed promise that we will all succeed equally. The first part of this report is therefore devoted to recovering the true understanding of the American Dream, the essence of which can be summed up by a simple equation:
This, in short, is what sets the stage for the American Dream—however one may define it. For some, it will be the goal of ensuring a better future for their children. For others, it translates into a comfortable middle-class life with a big house and a good job. And for a few, it adds up to a great success story that takes them from rags to riches. Whatever one’s American Dream may be, economic freedom and hard work are what make it possible.
But that is not the American Dream. The American Dream is about hard work and self-reliance, not handouts and dependence; equal opportunity, not equal results; emulating those who make it, not being envious of their success; pulling yourself up, not dragging others down.
The first pillar of the American Dream is economic freedom. Without the liberty to acquire and possess property and to dispose of it in free markets, our station in life would essentially be fixed at birth. By giving us the ability to profit from our own ideas and labor—to work, produce, consume, own, trade, and invest according to our own choices—economic freedom creates a world in which all may aspire to improve their lot. Since no one can be unjustly deprived of the fruits of his labor and ideas, there is a strong incentive to work hard, excel, innovate, and devise clever ways to do things better.