Max Levenstein: The American Dream

BY MAX LEVENSTEIN

Published May 30, 2011

The idea of the “American Dream” is perhaps the most cited and valued ethos that this country subscribes to. First used by author James Truslow Adams in 1931, he defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The American Dream is what originally separated the United States from the rest of the world. No longer did feudal or caste systems dictate the future of an individual’s life. Equal opportunity gave each individual the ability to chase their dreams. Even for myself, a critic of most ideologies, this seems pretty appealing. The truth is, Americans still cherish the notion that all people deserve a fair shot at life no matter what economic situation he is born into.

But how realistic is this dream? In the past few years, the nation has seen an increasing sentiment that the era of striving to own a home and have a successful career are over. I am somewhat skeptical of this view, but what if it were true? Perhaps home ownership will decline and all of our jobs will be outsourced overseas. Does this mean the end of the American Dream? Absolutely not. Although it may be great to have these things, the dream is not about the things we can get, but about the opportunity to acquire them. As long as this opportunity exists and thrives, the dream is still very much alive. There is one problem: does the opportunity for individual success still exist?

Equal opportunity cannot simply mean free markets and limited government. In our realistic economic environment, with a demographic mixture of poor and wealthy citizens, there is no reason to believe that laissez-faire policy sustains this equality. We can’t assume that the poor children of America have the same chance of success as their rich peers. Among other resources, better education is an opportunity given to the wealthy that the poor rarely have access to. Without these equal opportunities, the poor will usually stay poor, and continue to have limited abilities and resources to improve their future lives.

In order to keep this American Dream alive, we have to equalize the opportunities of all Americans, or at the very least, reach some minimum point where even the poorest individuals have some chance to better their future. Professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott’s book “The Stakeholder’s Society” offers one such possibility to reach this point. They propose that each American should receive $80,000 upon reaching the age of 21 if they graduate from high school, no strings attached.

Imagine what impact $80,000 would have on an individual just beginning their adult life. He could buy property, start a business or pay off college debts. Each citizen could decide how they will spend their funds, allowing for personal freedom and a viable opportunity for future success. Of course there will be those who fail and lose their money just as many people do now, but this shouldn’t detract from the importance of creating chances for all individuals. After all, the American Dream does not guarantee success, but merely a fair opportunity for its achievement.

As the $80,000 is meant to create opportunity, each citizen must pay it back to society (if possible) when he dies, thus creating opportunity for the next generation. It is therefore not charity or a welfare handout, but a way of guaranteeing each citizen a chance for success. There is the worry of how to fund this program, but Ackerman and Alstott have figured out how to properly and reasonably do so through a 2-percent wealth tax.

Is the American Dream dead? Not yet, but it definitely needs to be nursed back to health. I’m not saying this $80,000 plan is the only or even the best way to do so, but it’s just one example of something drastic that needs to occur to keep the opportunity for individual success and the American Dream alive in the future.

Max Levenstein can be reached at medl@umich.edu.