George Bernard Shaw supposedly said that England and America were “two nations divided by a common language.” A similar problem applies to progressives and conservatives today.
On the Left and on the Right, everyone talks about rebuilding, saving, restoring, defending, or rescuing an American Dream that is said to be slipping, fading, eroding, or vanishing. But then the sides diverge.
Liberals redefined the American Dream along egalitarian and statist lines. The exhortation to work hard and persevere if you fail has given way to calls for greater government involvement to ensure that everyone rises in the first place. The Left’s new American Dream is first and foremost about all that the federal government must do to create opportunity and ensure that incomes are distributed more equitably. Individual effort takes a back seat to government spending and cradle-to-grave entitlements.
In a new paper from Heritage, David Azerrad and Rea Hederman demolish those arguments. The left, they write, gets both the problem and its solution all wrong. Free-market economics is not about dividing up a dwindling pie, but about providing a recipe for an ever-expanding pie that can feed everyone, year-in and year-out. Those who succeed do not do so at the expense of others, but instead help create the conditions necessary for others to succeed themselves. If a company is thriving that’s good for the owner, obviously, but also for the people he hires.
. The left, they write, gets both the problem and its solution all wrong. Free-market economics is not about dividing up a dwindling pie, but about providing a recipe for an ever-expanding pie that can feed everyone, year-in and year-out. Those who succeed do not do so at the expense of others, but instead help create the conditions necessary for others to succeed themselves. If a company is thriving that’s good for the owner, obviously, but also for the people he hires.
Therefore the real American Dream is first and foremost about hard work and the opportunities created by a free economy. Stemming from our nation’s founding principles, the authors write that the recipe for the American Dream can be summed up by a simple equation:
Economic Freedom + Culture of Work = Prosperity and Opportunity
Government has a supporting role to play for this dream to come true. It must, for example, uphold the rule of law, secure property rights, ensure access to education, and provide a safety net for those who cannot care for themselves. Still, the focus remains on the individual and his efforts to rise and help those around him do the same. Given the diversity of individual efforts, not all will succeed. Unequal results are a natural outcome of equal opportunity.
Azerrad and Hederman provide an easy way to think about the differences between left and right. On the left, the American Dream resembles an escalator. The federal government sets it up, everyone hops on and moves up without effort. But conservatives, they write, see the Dream as more like a ladder. Anyone can climb up, but doing so requires effort. And if one falls back, he can always start again.
Since liberals and conservatives disagree about what the American Dream entails, it follows that they also disagree about what threatens it. For the Left, it largely boils down to income inequality—or, to be more precise, the rise in income inequality in recent decades. As the left sees things, since some people earn more income, others have less.
For the Right, the problem encompasses a host of factors that restrict upward mobility by creating artificial barriers to advancement and eroding social capital. Here are the very real threats to the American Dream:
1. The suffocating web of regulation and laws that flow from the limitless state and restrict opportunity;
2. The collapse of the family and the devastating, long-lasting consequences that it has on children;
3. The dependence fostered by the welfare state;
4. The erosion of our culture of work and the rise of a slacker culture that disparages hard work and celebrates indolence;
5. The failures of the public education system that deny countless children the rudimentary skills they need to move ahead in life; and
6. The looming fiscal crisis that has already saddled the next generation with an unconscionable level of debt.
For the Left’s new American Dream to deliver on its promise, America would have to be completely overhauled and the character of its citizens altered. The spirited, entrepreneurial and determinedly self-reliant citizens envisioned by the Founders of our constitutional republic would give way to timid and envious clients who increasingly turn to an omnipotent state for their well-being. That’s a future we can’t afford.
Words, and dreams, matter. It’s imperative that the American Dream be rescued from those who would so radically redefine it.
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