American dream

The American dream is the idea (often associated with the Protestant work ethic) held by many in the United States of America that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. These were values held by many early European settlers, and have been passed on to subsequent generations. What the American dream has become is a question under constant discussion.


History of the American dream

The origin of the American dream stems from the departure in government and economics from the models of the Old World. This allowed unprecedented freedom, especially the possibility of dramatic upward social mobility. Additionally, from the Revolutionary War well into the later half of the nineteenth century, many of America's physical resources were unclaimed and often undiscovered, allowing the possibility of coming across a fortune through relatively little, but lucky investment in land or industry. The development of the Industrial Revolution defined the mineral and land wealth which was there in abundance, contrary to the environmental riches such as huge herds of bison and diversity of forests, for the original Native Americans.

Many early American prospectors headed west of the Rocky Mountains to buy acres of cheap land in hopes of finding deposits of gold. The American dream was a driving factor not only in the Gold Rush of the mid to late 1800s, but also in the waves of immigration throughout that century and the following.

Impoverished western Europeans escaping the Irish potato famines in Ireland, the Highland clearances in Scotland and the aftermath of Napoleon in the rest of Europe came to America to escape a poor quality of life at home. They wanted to embrace the promise of financial security and constitutional freedom they had heard existed so widely in the United States.

During the mid-to-late ninteenth century prolific dime novel writer Horatio Alger, Jr. became famous for his novels that idealized the American dream. His novels about down-and-out bootblacks who were able to achieve wealth and success helped entrench the dream within popular culture.

Nearing the twentieth century, major industrialist personalities became the new model of the American dream, many beginning life in the humblest of conditions but later controlling enormous corporations and fortunes. Perhaps most notable here were the great American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

This acquisition of great wealth appeared to demonstrate that if you had talent, intelligence, and a willingness to work extremely hard, you were likely to be a success in life as a result.

Throughout the 19th century, immigrants fled the monarchies of Western Europe and their post-feudal economies, which actively oppressed the peasant class. These economic systems required high levels of taxation, which stymied development. The American economy, however, was built up by people who were consciously free of these constraints.

Settlement in the new world provided hope for egalitarianism. Martin Luther King invoked the American Dream in what is perhaps his most famous speech:

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

By the turn of the 20th century, the promise of the American dream had begun to lure substantial numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Huge numbers of Italians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, Russians and others came to find work in industrial cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. This wave of immigration continued until the outbreak of World War I. Following the war, nativist sentiment led to new restrictions on immigration, which would continue until 1965.

The American dream today

In the 20th century, the American dream had its challenges. The Depression caused widespread hardship during the Twenties and Thirties, and was almost a reverse of the dream for those directly affected. Racial instability did not disappear, and in some parts of the country racial violence was almost commonplace. There was concern about the undemocratic campaign known as McCarthyism carried on against suspected Communists.

Since the end of World War II, young American families have sought to live in relative bourgeois comfort in the suburbs that they built up. This was aided as a vision by the apparent winning of the Cold War.

The American Dream appears to have enduring appeal to many in other countries. The United States remains a magnet for immigrants today, receiving 1 million legal entrants annually--the highest such rate in the world. Whereas past generations of immigrants tended to come from Europe, a majority of contemporary immigrants hail from Latin America and Asia. Unknown numbers of illegal immigrants also enter the country annually, chiefly from across the southern border with Mexico.

Criticism of the American dream

The concept of the American dream has been the subject of much criticism by for example Joseph Stiglitz. The main criticism is that the American dream is misleading. These critics say that, for various reasons, it simply is not possible for everyone to become prosperous through determination and hard work. The consequences of this belief can include the poor feeling that it is their fault that they are not successful. It can also result in less effort towards helping the poor since their poverty is "proof" of their laziness. The concept of the American dream also ignores other factors of success such as the family and wealth one is born into and inheritable traits such as intelligence. The American Dream is widely seen as superficial and largely meaningless. Many literary works level exactly that criticism at the American Dream, such as Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. Such arguments are essentially rehashes of the old adage "Money doesn't buy happiness."

In particular some of the reasons that have lead the whole concept to be a myth are:-

  • in the US it is difficult for children of poor families to afford college; not attending college sets upper limits on their career success, and it is essentially impossible to earn a bachelors' degree — necessary for many fields — in one's free time once one begins working full-time.
  • Limited economic mobility - Over time, the affluent have managed to bribe the government to their advantage. For example, the recent repeal of inheritance tax and capital gain tax is only going to solidify further the class system.
  • Economy of scale - Its almost impossible today to successfully start a business. This is because economy of scale is necessary to survive in commodity market. And most of the established companies have already patented most of the general available knowledge making it virtually impossible to survive in the new economy.
  • Genetic lottery - Some people may point at a few people like Steve Jobs who have made it big. A closer looks however reveal this would not work for everyone. Research have confirmed that some features like height and colour give some people advantage over the others.
  • Ethics difference - As in any other countries, actions considered ethical vary between Americans. For example, a CEO who see stock options as theft would find it hard reaching his or her American dream than a pragmatist CEO.

A critical comparison of the American dream and the experience of Italian-Americans is one of the themes in The Godfather film trilogy

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