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.
"It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States . . . should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections."
Co-hosted by the Foreign Policy InitiativeThe wars in Iraq and Afghanistan convinced many policymakers and scholars that the United States should pull back in international — Read more
Having surveyed a group of key Anglo-American and European political thinkers, João Carlos Espada argues there is a distinctive, Anglo-American tradition of liberty that is — Read more
One of the tragic consequences of the dire human rights situation in North Korea has been defectors risking imprisonment or death to escape to China to — Read more
A new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) shows a rapid rise in state and local governments’ unfunded pension liabilities. At nearly — Read more
Located in the South Caucasus, Georgia sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads and has proven to be strategically important for military and economic — Read more
Co-hosted by the American Enterprise Institute Both of the major parties agree that this is a crossroads election, but some implications of the vote may not — Read more
Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, believed that the acme of leadership consists in figuring out how to subdue the enemy with the — Read more
As the new administration and Congress are settling in, one of their early priorities must be national defense. One of the key resources available for — Read more
Six years after its enactment, Obamacare remains one of the most controversial, divisive, and enduring political issues in America. In this much-anticipated follow-up to — Read more
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
Receive updates from Heritage about current events and initiatives in your email inbox
Already Signed up?
© 2016, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973