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.
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.
To the tired complaint, originating in Marx, that in a capitalist economy only the wealthy own the means of production, the Founders would respond that each person in fact owns the most important means of production: himself and his labor, whether physical or mental. As Abraham Lincoln’s own retelling of the “American Dream” makes clear:
In this sort of appeal inhered the moral authority that issued in the movement’s greatest triumphs, the enactment of the landmark pieces of federal legislation that put an end to the regime of formal segregation that had disfigured much of the republic for the whole of the century to that point. But in King’s expansive vision of integration and community—of the fully realized American dream—further problems and further objectives came quickly into view.
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To a large extent, this is still true, but the culture of work has eroded. While the aristocratic regime of Old Europe is not about to make a comeback in the U.S., work is increasingly disparaged. The “work is for suckers” mentality is no longer confined to a few marginal Huck Finns. From gangsta rap to blockbuster slacker movies, much of mainstream culture undermines the work ethos that undergirds the American Dream. The small-time crook and the bumbling pothead are now cultural icons.
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Today, on the Left and on the Right, everyone talks about rebuilding, saving, restoring, defending, or rescuing an American Dream that is slipping, fading, eroding, or vanishing.
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The loudest voices, all coming from the Left, fulminate against the top 1 percent of earners and blame an unfair system that allows the rich to line their pockets, leaves the poor in the lurch, and generates spectacular income disparities. To protect the American Dream, these critics call for greater government involvement to make things more equal and ensure that everyone gets their “fair share.”