Monday, August 4, 2008

Controversies--1--The Great American Dream

Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Makes a Man Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise.

Politicians talk a great deal about the "American Dream". In recent years, indeed, through my whole lifetime, politicians have reduced that dream to material terms. When I was young, it was "own your own business", during the Carter years, as interest rates and inflation rates soared, putting housing out of reach for many, it was "own your own home". Now, based on the rhetorick of the current candidates for political office, the current "American dream" has been reduced to owning a car with a full tank of gas, or being able to go to the doctor and still buy groceries. I suspect that the American dream has more or less evaporated and been replaced by the "European dream" as it has become more and more a political commodity.

Therefore, it is good, I believe, to review a little history. Roger Babson, in his delightful little book, "The Fundamentals of Prosperity" says that people in the US are comparitively well off and those in Latin America are comparitively poor because those who came to this country came seeking God and those who came to Central and South America came seeking gold. Of course, this is a generalization that anyone who has seen Disney's Pocahontas knows is not entirely correct. Babson was, of course, thinking of the Pilgrims and the Puritans that settled New England. There is no question that for the majority of those people, the "American Dream" was to establish "the city set on a hill", the Zion society to which God would send only those predestined to be saved.

By the time of the American revolution, the dream for most Americans had become more individualized or, at least, family directed. The hope of establishing an entire Zion society, had given way to the idea of individual and family success. The man that best characterizes the American Dream of that era is Benjamin Franklin. Here is a highly successful businessman, artisan, author, inventor, scientist--all very individual achievements. At the same time, Franklin recognised the importance of social co-operation and good government as well. He established a public library, worked toward many public works in his home town of Philadelphia and was active in local government. At the same time, he recognized the importance of good state and national government. He was active at both the state and national level. He is, of course, best remembered for his work at the latter--his effort to get the Declaration of Independence written and approved, his efforts to get French support for the American Revolution, and finally, his effort to get the Constitution written and accepted.

We are alway told that Franklin was a Deist, but his comments at the constitutional convention lead me to believe that he had moved from the position of Des Carte to that of Newton. His very famous comment there was, of course, that if the govenor of the universe will not suffer a sparrow to fall without his notice, is it likely that He will help a great nation to arise without his assistance? Like Franklin, most Americans saw the American Dream as firmly rooted in indivdual responsibility and achievement, at the same time recognizing the importance of the need for social assistance. The government's role was seen largely as negative, i. e. eliminating those from the scene who want to live exclusively, or almost so, at the expense of others. That was seen as the "European Dream".

I have quoted Franklin's most famous couplet above, because I believe, until fairly recently, the achievement of health, wealth, and wisdom in some form, and in some combination, was the primary goal of most Americans, i. e. the achievement of one or more, or even all, was the "American Dream" and it was widely believed that this was achieved best without government assistance and with as little government interference as possible.

We will look at each in turn, because, of course, all three, have become in our day, very much the stuff of political controversy and we will contrast them with the American Dream and visions of other countries. We begin with "Health" largely because the "American dream" in that area has never been realized or even explained very well and we will look for possible reasons why in future articles.

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