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Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Real American Dream and the Counterfeit

A billboard I passed on the freeway the other day urged me to live the American Dream, but the dream it offered was not the real one. Listen to an audio podcast of this post.

. . . Not!

The billboard said that I could live the American Dream by buying my own home in a particular development, where prices start (if memory serves) at $169,000. I've heard this definition of the American Dream all my life. Own your own home, with a big television in the family room, a charming family in the television room, a couple of cars in the garage, and, lately, I suppose, a smart phone for every member of the family. Live the American Dream!

If owning a home really were the American Dream, then the most American thing we could do would be to make it possible for everyone to own a home, irrespective of ability to pay a mortgage or manage a household. Ultimately, if people could not provide this dream for themselves, we would want our government to provide it for them. After all, this is not just any dream. It's not the Albanian dream or the Argentinian dream or the Australian dream. It's the American Dream. It is what we are. It is what we have always been, and what we choose to be and hope to become.

We in America recently tried luring the renting masses into home ownership, with the taxpayers assuming the risk and in some cases also providing the prize. Quite predictably, it proved to be stupid, breathtakingly expensive, and contrary to both human nature and economics. It led to a partial economic collapse. We're still reeling from that collapse and our subsequent politics' misguided remedies for it. Not coincidentally, for the last two and a half years the talking heads have been wondering -- not for the first time, to be sure -- whether the American Dream is finally dying, or possibly already dead.

In truth, home ownership is hardly dead. Slightly more people are renting, and slightly fewer people are buying, their homes now than before, but -- maybe this is a comforting thought -- a lot of us are still paying our mortgages without being rescued or bailed out by government intervention (unless you count the mortgage interest deduction, which is another topic for another day).

Here's another thought: There is nothing inherently American about owning a home or yearning to. Nor are Americans the only people to wish for a chicken in every pot, figuratively or literally. Home ownership is not the American Dream.

The Real One

Freedom is the American Dream. Others have been free at times, and many have yearned to be. But it was Americans who got together and bet the whole farm on freedom, before anyone else was sure it was even a viable crop.

It's not that owning a home doesn't belong in the picture. Freedom leads to opportunity, and opportunity often leads to prosperity, to my home and your mansion, with your Cadillacs and my Hondas in the driveways. But if we mistakenly believe that the American Dream is something I can own, something my government might give me (at the expense of all the rest of you), then our mistake is a toxic one in two ways, and we stand a fair chance of poisoning the real American Dream by our pursuit of the counterfeit. It's the ultimate opportunity cost.

Here's the first way the counterfeit is toxic. If you think that the American Dream is something you can buy me, such as a home, your freedom will be diminished by your own generosity and good wishes. You want me to live this fake American Dream, and I might be unable to afford it. I might miss out altogether, unless you're forced to buy it for me, that is, unless the government gives it to me at your expense. The only way for government systematically to pass out expensive goodies is to exact their cost from someone in treasure and in freedom. Pardon the expression, but, if you insist on it, they will enslave you for a few hours or days or weeks each year, just long enough to pay for my lifestyle and the bureaucracy which grants it to me.

Here's the second way it's toxic. My freedom will be diminished, too. My real American Dream will be destroyed by your desire to grant me the fake one. If the American Dream really is freedom, which the government cannot grant but can destroy, my failure has to be a real option. If you take from me the opportunity to choose and to risk and to fail, by insuring a successful outcome at taxpayer expense, you deprive me of my opportunity to succeed, as well. When you take away my opportunity, no matter how good or generous your intentions, you destroy my freedom. When you destroy my freedom, you reduce me to something less than fully human -- and less than fully American.

Janet Daley

I considered quoting James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln at this point, but my mind kept returning to Janet Daley's attempt last year to explain Americans to our cousins in the United Kingdom, to Europeans, and perhaps to some folks here on our side of the pond. I've quoted this here before. Note that she mentions freedom or liberty directly only a couple of times, yet this is the spirit of the whole passage. To make this easier to notice, I've added some italics:

What is unique about the US -- and indispensable to the understanding of it -- is that it is a country of the displaced and dispossessed: a nation which invented itself for the very purpose of permitting people to reinvent themselves, to take their fate into their own hands, to be liberated from the persecution and the paternalism of the old cultures they had left behind. Almost every American either is himself, or is descended from, someone who made a conscious decision to pull up his roots and take his chances in a land he had almost certainly never seen and which, until quite recently, offered no protection or security if the gamble failed. . . .;

Can you imagine what the character (and the desperation) of these people must have been? To travel 3,000 miles in steerage, with all your worldly possessions on your back, to an unknown future -- and all to escape from the demonic power of a state which had oppressed or demeaned or maltreated you? Not only is hatred and suspicion of over-powerful government embedded in the consciousness of ordinary Americans, it is inscribed in the Constitution, which provides, probably more than any document in human history, a literal embodiment of political values and a bond between disparate people which gives them a sense of national identity.

. . . America, they say, is an optimistic country because that's where the optimists went. And most Europeans, after all, did not go. This is, indeed, a strange nation: its citizenry has been almost entirely self-selecting (apart from those who were taken there in chains, whose descendants have had such significant social problems). To be pessimistic or defeatist in the US is a sin against the Holy Ghost: an unforgivable waste of the opportunity which the country has offered you.

I wonder if the Obama liberals -- in their eagerness to turn the US into a European country, complete with paternalistic interventionism and bourgeois guilt -- realise what is in the rest of that package: passivity, resignation and the corrosive cynicism that makes it impossible for Europeans to believe that ordinary people can use words like "freedom" and "justice" without smirking, and are not prepared to give up on the attempt to reconcile their ideals with the difficult realities of human behaviour.

As I wrote once before, Alexis de Tocqueville would be proud of this analysis. Coming from me, a self-described Tocqueville conservative, that is high praise.

To Recap . . .

Freedom is the American Dream.

The American Dream is freedom.

Note to self: Don't believe everything I read on billboards. Believe instead that old, eternally new document which says that all people have a God-given right to be free, and that, on our sacred honor, we will not have King George III -- or, by extension, any other despot, individual or collective -- come between us and God's gift any more.

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