The American Dream Was Real, Tangible, and Good

Today, an acquaintance tweeted offhandedly,

“There was never an #AmericanDream, it was a myth to bring people over to be exploited”

That statement couldn’t be more wrong.

The “work hard and deal honestly with others will allow you to prosper” American Dream was real.  For generations, it was the bedrock upon which my family built its ongoing prosperity, as it was for the many, many families that arrived on America’s shores and their descendants.

Sure, it was tough, but it worked.   Not only that, it worked in America in a way it NEVER could have worked anywhere else in the world.

In fact, I strongly believe the countless number of American Dream successes, one after another, became the modern origin of the idea that widespread prosperity was actually possible.  A plausible promise of that prosperity is available to anyone willing to work for it, instead of a prosperity that only ever benefited the few — as it did everywhere else.

Until then, a prosperity like this was merely a myth, or a dangerous idea not to be trusted.

Yet we Americans, by actually demonstrating that the Dream was real, broke the economic mold of millenia.  We set in motion a process, a dynamism, that made the modern world not only possible, but probable.

Of course, the traditional idea of the American Dream is passing into history.  As we have seen over and over again over the last few decades, this powerful formula simply doesn’t work anymore.

Worse, in its wake there is a growing chorus of frustrated people who doubt the American Dream ever existed at all.   They are egged on by people that never believed in the American Dream, what it meant, and the people that made it possible.  To this elite, as it has been to elites across history, the rise of middle class and its widespread prosperity was a horrendous mistake.  An error of history.  A blip. Something that we will regret in hindsight.

These elites reside in Washington.  Bureaucrats, eager to replace the American Dream with more government, laws, taxes, and regulation in order to actively manage outcomes.  They also infest Wall Street.  Speculators convinced their financial success means they are genetically, constitutionally, or mentally superior to an America filled with rubes, suckers, and losers — people unfit to prosper.

These detractors couldn’t be more wrong.

Everything we hold as good in the modern world is the product of the widespread prosperity made possible by the American Dream, and everyone around the world who adopted it.   Modernity, and its ability to provide even a common man a life of comfort equal to a noble in previous epochs, is the product of the ongoing innovation of those living and working within the confines of this Dream.

Unfortunately, this chorus of detractors is right about one thing.

The American Dream of our past doesn’t deliver results in today’s world, and no amount of bureaucratic “management” or financial “innovation” will fix it.

The world the Dream made possible has changed.  This world made the Dream obsolete at the very moment of its victory.

Join the movement to restore America's prosperity

Discussion — 22 Responses

  • Michael J. Lotus February 12, 2014 on 1:35 pm

    So it is time to launch the new iteration of the American Dream.

    • GoatGuy Michael J. Lotus February 12, 2014 on 3:39 pm

      And what would the new iteration be? Let’s recall John Robb‘s original premise: that at the very center of TAD is

      prosperity ← enterprise
      enterprise ← work + freedom from civic / union / societal bonds
      freedom ← cause celebré of America’s independence

      Realizing these three chained elective desires and rights, in some ways I am brought to disagree with John Robb’s conclusion – that the American Dream is now essentially obsolete just as it is victorious.

      Try it out – imagine a new American Dream – that somehow deletes-and-replaces the fundamental chain-of-opportunity with something … else. Perhaps from advanced age, I simply am neither idealistic enough, nor rapidly-cogent enough to imagine what the replacement might be. Perhaps it is something like, “work for all, and a living wage that reflects the community in which one lives”

      I don’t know.

      Pop a few ideas out there – or perhaps John will.

      • John Robb GoatGuy February 12, 2014 on 4:11 pm


        I put up a new formula earlier. It’s the only formula I’ve found that works in a world of networks. JR

    • John Robb Michael J. Lotus February 12, 2014 on 4:03 pm

      Very true.

    • Doug Marrs Michael J. Lotus February 18, 2014 on 3:44 pm

      The Dream isn’t in need of reformulation rather the impediments need removal.

      The ruling class needs to be sent home, vote them all out.

      The Raj’s of the beltway need to be removed, enforce the tenth amendment. Close the Dept of Ed, HHS, DHS, Commerce, Labor etc.

      Repeal the 13th and 17th amendments, no income tax, starve the Leviathan and Senators chosen by their States Legislature will end the Sage statemen know best Bs that now leads to Byrd, Thurmond, McCain and Reid running us like a cabal of pimps

      We either fix it or mourn its passing the old dream worked until we stopped working it

  • Cavolonero February 12, 2014 on 1:42 pm

    We managed to get ourselves out from under King George only to eventually find ourselves under Burger King.

    • Cliff Cavolonero February 12, 2014 on 2:40 pm

      The quote of the day!

      • John Robb Cliff February 12, 2014 on 4:06 pm

        Thanks Cliff. JR

    • GoatGuy Cavolonero February 12, 2014 on 3:46 pm

      I agree with ~Cliff~ – this is a piquant quote.

      • John Robb GoatGuy February 12, 2014 on 4:08 pm

        Really love that you used piquant in a sentence! JR

  • Dan OConnor February 12, 2014 on 2:20 pm

    If one wanted to argue the American Dream existed the best place to make it would have been observed was post WW2 with those who overcame the depression and then went to war. America has great promise at that point. Unfortunately, with prosperity sometimes comes greed or perhaps less pejorative usage, efficiency planning.

    Combined with diminishing manufacturing capabilities, reliance on overseas imports, an extended entitlement emergence, and changing of regulations and constraints makes what 3 generations ago called the American Dream is now by and large an illusion.

    There are certainly opportunities but what has been traditionalized and also neglected; education, for profit education, movement to further centralize activities, the theatre of security, extended military activities, and a host of other maturing challenges makes the idea of building a life, family, home, and future a bit tenuous.

    What was once an idealism or the concept of American exceptionalism has diminished to a peculiar cynicism and pragmaticism with regard to future opportunities.

    At some point in the near future or a point perhaps already passed, recovery and opportunity will not be possible, in the current construct and definition.

    • John Robb Dan OConnor February 12, 2014 on 4:06 pm

      Dan, The Dream was at work with my family for many generations before WW2. It was much tougher then, but it was the same basic formula. Working on a new dream requires a new formula. I’ve found it hard to get people to let go of the old, failed approach. JR

      • Dan OConnor John Robb February 12, 2014 on 5:55 pm


        I agree with the new formula requirement. And the “dream” can be a bit abstract. For my relatives 2 generations before WWII arriving from Ireland in steerage to work in a Brooklyn glue factory their dream was realized by being able to figure out how to purchase a home and raise between them 10 children.

        City air breathes free or so the saying goes. There were many opportunities late 19th and 20th century for mildly educated immigrants to transcend society and make maddening progress.

        So to that extent, I’d concur with you in terms of generations fore and aft… Given the starting point and conditions, I am unbelievably blessed that each generation strove to better conditions and its within that context that the idea must be given a different construct and “formula.


  • GoatGuy February 12, 2014 on 4:14 pm

    On Kings and Corporations; The American Dream, ~Reloaded~

    The nativity of ~America~ rested if on nothing else, but principles. This people, who were variously reaching for the economic, religious and social opportunities afforded the Colonies, embraced the philosophical stance that ”henceforth, the individual shall be free from the bonds of the ruling class”.

    Blessed with seemingly limitless resources, and ready markets in Europe to export into, it faced an economic problem (development) that couldn’t be optimized without letting free enterprise rise, ~and be defended by the government~ against those who would monopolize it, and turn the populus back into landless serfs.

    The not-yet-coined American Dream was simply to have the freedom to work, and the freedom to engage one’s own enterprise, without state imposed sanctions, repressive taxation, sovereign direction or even economic guidance. I need not recite how this worked out in any detail, other than to note that every corner of New England and the South that had any obvious resources, was capitalized through hard-work and sweet enterprise into eminently profitable concerns.

    On an individual level as things progressed in the 18th century and into the 19th, the industrial revolution brought much upset to the work-a-day status quo, so filled previously with human resource demands. Machines spun fibers to yarns, wove yarns to duck canvas, lifted and dropped needles faster than they eye could follow for sail-makers to turn canvas into sheets. Machines hauled products not dozens, but thousands of leagues, machines chugged across the Pond with little regard to season, weather or destination. Products ~flowed~, and moguls were made. Many people worked without fair or adequate compensation; some were enslaved, almost the worst tradeoff possible. Or maybe not much different from serfdom, hard to say. Yet, many people found it possible if they kept their wits, to bend with the winds of change, and profit from the breakneck speed of industrial progress.

    Jumping ahead to ”now”, I hear often that the ”American Dream” is broken, is becoming ever less possible to realize, ever more of an anachronism, to be remembered in its historical sense, but not for its power to lead on ahead.

    And this gives me pause: I’m lucky enough to have lived without significant need to pull up my stakes, in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life. Born in 1959, I’m what… 54 or something close. I’ve gone to school here, college; I’ve started a business that became rather successful when computers still had squirrels in them to make ‘em go. I’ve watched various ”Main Streets” go down the tubes, and others decline, then have a renaissance in the 1990s; some are now downright jumping!

    The most notable thing though for me is seeing the flush of ~new businesses~ that have popped up in the last 5 years. The Great Market Crash of 2008 (and before that the Great Year 2000 Scare) both seriously depressed the economic ascension of graphs and curves everywhere. Our sudden economic food-poisoning infected the world too; yet, the take-away was that the damage was fairly limited to spectacularly overhyped banks, insurance carriers, investment houses and stock exchange parasites. THE MAN ON THE STREET still had free-enterprise working for him, and the absolutely inevitable maturation of teens to 20 year olds, 20 year olds to 30 year olds, etc., brought ”into power” a new breed willing to follow exactly the tenants of American Dream, “Reloaded”

    I’m deeply amazed at the number of new restaurants – which aren’t just succeeding, but brilliantly profitable, the number of new bars, venues, boutiques, the number of new franchises, manufacturing enterprises, design houses, and more … that have popped into existence since Y2K. These very-often lauded ”small businesses” (cited as major employers, collectively) are fulfilling exactly their reputation: hiring rag-tag platoons of local yokels, giving them very modest pay, but not unreasonably Scrooge-like income. Together, they’re loosely collectivizing ~in exactly the same way my generation of the same age, back in the 1980s did~: 4, 5, 6, 8 people renting a single house, living communally, pooling money for rent, food, all the rest. Sharing cars, figuring out equitable stakes in the ”living process”. Having fights, ejecting bad apples, hanging out, making music, all the rest.

    So, to conclude: ~contrary to John Robb~, I maintain that the deep-seated and perhaps irreducibly atomic contributions that American business freedom, freedom of enterprise, freedom from special interest depredation and monopolization … are still in play, and are rendering the American Dream anything but obsolete. Or, as Mark Twain said, “Ehm… I’m sorry gentlemen, but the rumors of my demise are false”


  • Cliff February 12, 2014 on 4:57 pm

    GoatGuy, maybe they are in play in certain regions and not others. Relatives of mine in western North Carolina tell me about the many, many businesses that are gone, malls that shrinking or gone, high unemployment. Even here in the Northern Virginia area, I have seen more “For Lease” signs on big, beautiful – even new – office buildings than I have *ever seen before* in my many years here. The oases of enterprise you are talking about GoatGuy seem far and few between.

  • Dave P February 13, 2014 on 12:35 am

    2500 sq ft is a crazy oversized house for most families (800-1200 post wwII), a complete waste of resources. Most of the rest or our society has been super sized as well. A combination of real dreams (not fantasy), and smart work in the current context might keep us viable. Even for all of us liberal arts majors in Washington DC. Washington does not run your life, never did. Those who blame it are just looking for an excuse. If you don’t like government, don’t use the services and you won’t have to pay for it. Same principle as dealing with the banks. Of course anti-bank and anti-government are the 200 year old whipping boys our republic.

  • Benign February 17, 2014 on 8:53 pm

    Recent research by Picketty et al seems to show that inter generational mobility in America has stayed the same (at least 1970-2005 or so) but the rungs of the income ladder have further apart; so it’s the same rank-order-wise. Could be changing with increased tech-for-labor substitution.

    One thing Washington could do if it weren’t owned by the plutocrats would be to raise marginal tax rates on high income brackets to where they were for most of the postwar period, to bring the plutocrats back down to Earth. Then we might get some collectively beneficial decision making. These people’s hormones are out of whack with their current dominance position, and their capacity for empathy has been destroyed.

    If we acted as if *people* were our greatest resource the distribution would be leveled out to an “optimal” extent and everyone would have access to a basic income, ability-appropriate training and health care. Top to bottom limits on after-tax incomes can be implemented through the tax code. The health and happiness benefits of more income and wealth equality have been amply demonstrated by Williamson et al (see his great TED talk on inequality for intro).

    How do we break the death-lock of the plutocrats on the democratic system–that is the question, IMHO.

    • John Robb Benign February 18, 2014 on 8:52 am

      Benign, I’ve read the study and it is extremely convoluted (particularly if you dig past the conclusions). Not sure it actually illuminates anything. Regardless, the system that emerges needs to reflect the emerging Dream and not the old one. JR

      • Benign John Robb February 18, 2014 on 9:52 am

        Correction: Wilkinson, not Williamson (the county I live in).

        Sorry John… What is the new dream? Continuous innovation? Endless contract work insecurity? Homesteading and self-sufficiency in food and energy? Or some combination of the above? Sounds an awful lot like techno-libertarianism that nowadays shills for the plutocrats by keeping their taxes down.

        Offered in a spirit of constructive criticism… But your readers would benefit from a one paragraph précis of your idea for a new dream.

        Your dream sounds much like Thomas Jefferson’s faith that it would be the prevalence of self-sufficient small landholders that was the heavy keel stabilizing American democracy.

  • nickels February 18, 2014 on 10:50 am

    It used to be such that a basic but stable blue collar job would land one with a nice house, car, vacations, family, a dog, and a cat.
    Now, as a generation Xer struggling to make ends meet with a PhD in sciene/math, paying for a house that costs 3 times more than it did 10years ago, paying 20 million difference types of insurance, fees on everything, etc.. it is obvious that the American dream is hosed.
    Which is just reality, and one deals with it.
    However, If I hear one more derogratory comment directed towards my generation or the generations that follow (most of whom are even more hosed), especially if such comments are directed from the ‘greatest generation’ or some baloney of such sorts, and especially if such comments are about what slackers young folk are, …. well, I probably wont do anything because I’ve been hearing this garbage my whole life….
    But nonetheless, the lack of understanding from generations that could pay for a house and car with no education (or student loans)…..
    I tire myself out, I cannot finish. But perhaps one gets the idea…

  • Larry February 20, 2014 on 2:26 pm

    How do we include everyone?

    Historically, there was never a dream if you were not of the right group – for example, the Chinese (Chinese exclusion acts, general discrimination) and if you were black (slavery, Jim Crow). And it was often a nightmare if you were Native American…

  • nickels February 20, 2014 on 2:49 pm

    Very good point, Larry.