Q: I’ve noticed a curious dearth of references to the “American Dream” among most libertarian writers. Sometimes it seems like libertarians would be more interested in seeing seasteading succeeding. Why don’t libertarians care about the American Dream?
Tibor Machan points out that we have to be clear just which American Dream we’re talking about.
A: Now and then one hears or reads reference to “the American Dream,” as if there was just one such thing. In fact, however, what is uniquely American is just that Americans are supposed to be free to dream their own dreams, pursue their own happiness as they understand it, instead of falling in line with what some elite or the government declares to be everyone’s prime concern.
Very loosely the American dream refers to a certain measure of prosperity, including home and vehicle ownership, along with what makes this possible, namely, a decent line of work, a productive job. These are broadly enough definable so that they do not amount to a one-size-fits-all idea for one to have to buy into. Just like happiness, to the pursuit of which all human beings have a right (as per the Declaration of Independence), the American dream can vary enormously from person to person. It is, however, the American dream because of that very fact, while the dreams of citizens elsewhere tend to be forced or nudged into alignment with the dreams of their political or cultural leaders.
When I first came to the United States of America, I was 17 and a half years old and was very involved in learning about America. I did this even before arriving here, mostly by reading novels by the likes of Zane Gray, Erle Stanley Garner, Mark Twain, and others who were famous among the young even outside of the country. Thinking back on it, I cannot identify any one thing that the novels of these authors agreed on would qualify as the American dream. Certainly nothing specific, nothing concrete. At most they conveyed the notion that in America men and women prize their liberty and prefer taking on the job of governing their own lives as they see fit. Yes, if this is meant by the American dream, there was something like it in the air wherever one came across Americans and their stories, real or fictional. It seemed to me back then that Americans stood out by not concerning themselves with following the herd, with doing routinely what their neighbors did, with reaching some kind of standard of life considered to be the average or mean. They had their own standards of success, or at least they projected this as Americans. And that is one main reason I set my eyes on coming to live here. The envy-driven concern about equality just seemed absent here, while it dominated the countries under the thumb of the Soviets, for example.
Sadly much of this has changed. Now talk of the American dream tends to imply wanting everyone to be equally well of as everyone else is, the dream of egalitarianism. If some have it very good, well, then it’s unjust that others don’t. Never mind setting out on one’s own path, as an artist, engineer, banker, architect, soldier or whatever, because one of those fulfills one’s personal aspirations. That would be the old version of the American dream, at least as I understood it.
But truth be told I and others like me who came here from abroad, even from such hell holes as the communist countries were, didn’t worry much about some American dream, not if it had anything to do with some one-size-fits-all blueprint to be implemented in one’s life. No, it was mostly all about doing what one wants to do, pursuing one’s personal dream, one’s own, if you will, American dream. And respecting the rights of others do likewise.
Of course, America didn’t quite live up to this more sensible rendition of “the dream” since many were still disenfranchised, even oppressed, who lived here. But comparatively speaking America made plenty of room for the pursuit of one’s dream and still does, judging by how many millions across the globe want to come here to live and work even in the midst of difficult economic times and how many want its institutions emulated. No doubt, there is ample dissent afoot about this, as well. And some would actually embark upon remaking America according to the dictates of certain religious books and leaders. Even while they see the value of economic opportunity in this country, they do not connect it with its basic political philosophy of individualism and individual rights.
For me living my own American dream will do just fine, even if others want to impose something quite different. I just hope my children and indeed all children will still find it possible to do this in the future.
Tibor Machan is an adviser to Freedom Communications on libertarian issues. He is a professor at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University, where he holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise. He is also a Hoover Institution research fellow.
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