What Made the American Dream so Important
The reason the American Dream was important, and why its loss is potentially catastrophic, is because it made possible modern life — as the engine that built the modern world.
It accomplished this by doing something new. Something never seen before, across recorded history.
It was the simple premise that anyone, through hard work and fair dealings, could attain independent economic prosperity. But it wasn’t only an idea. It was a specific formula for living a good and productive life.
A simple formula more radical than democracy, capitalism, and communism ever were, even at their peak in popularity.
While it began as a religiously inspired moral imperative, over time it became a secular categorical imperative. A concept so viral, it eventually spread throughout the world, far beyond the borders of America. It is now present, at least at some level, within every population on earth. In nearly every economic nook and cranny of the global landscape that has been touched by the global economy.
Yet, it was an idea so radical at the time, that it was only able to find truly fertile soil in America. A place comparatively free of the shackles of Feudalistic nepotism, growing government bureaucracies, and Florentine finance that had so slowed its spread in Europe and elsewhere.
NOTE: I’m not claiming that the US, now or historically, is categorically good. It never has been, nor is it today (I’m a vocal critic of many of things we do wrong). However, that is to be expected. Every country in the world is rife with flaws and terrible historical mistakes, but it is my belief that on balance, the good the US has done, far outweighs the bad. This is an example of that.
Why is it so powerful?
The reason the American Dream was so powerful is because it did something unique.
It made possible an economy that, for the first time in history, became more than just an exchange of lightly improved natural resources or a poorly maintained support network for incessant aristocratic warfare.
It instantiated a system of unrelenting technological improvement. Technological improvement that turned a world that was largely unchanged since antiquity, into the modern world we see today within three centuries.
It did this by providing everyone with a reason for innovating technologically, and a reason for using those technological innovations.
It did this by motivating millions of individuals pursuing the Dream, to use technology to solve the myriad of problems we confront in everyday life. It turned our economy into an engine of technological innovation.
In contrast, up until this point in history, technological progress was narrow, slow, and haphazard. Worse, progress was often reversed by those in power.
For example, an innovation engine like this was obviously not possible in the parts of the world ruled by capricious aristocracies.
In those regions, the sustainable agrarian economy was sacrosanct and technological progress was routinely reversed on a whim (or to maintain social stasis as we saw in China on numerous occasions).
Innovation like this was also, a surprise to many, not possible in the economies dominated by Florentine banking and Venetian merchant adventures.
That ancient form of economics was based on a narrow base of commercial trade and financial rents. A zero sum economy where only a small number — the strongest and shrewdest — profited.
As a result, technological progress often stagnated, and even when innovation occurred, these innovations were only lightly applied (aka went nowhere). The reason is simple. In a social system where few benefit, few have the means to tinker with technological innovations and even fewer are able to purchase them.
In contrast, the American Dream drove widespread technological innovation and the entrepreneurial drive to bring it to market.
The widespread prosperity made possible by the Dream, naturally drove forward demand for innovative technologies. Technologies to help people become more prosperous, often by relieving the drudgery of everyday life. This demand made it possible to deploy these technologies widely and provided the economic feedback loop that drove more innovation.