It is rather ironic that a nation emphasizing freedom and prosperity struggles greatly with the controversy of these issues. The “American dream” comes to mind. For immigrants coming to America after the Civil War, the “American dream” was the hope that America would be a place of freedom and security, not simply financially, but from the suffering they were enduring in the nations from which they came. That was the reason colonists came over in the first place: England was still in bitter conflict over religious affairs – an issue we commonly call “church and state” – that encouraged commoners to flee England in search of a place where they could exercise religious freedom. For immigrants of the late 1800s, it appears there suffering was due to strict religious governance in their homelands but of the lack of daily necessities. The Irish potato famine comes to mind. To these immigrants, the American dream was simply to have those necessities. The social class conflicts of that era reflect this simplicity of the common folk: workers went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions because they wanted to be able to afford the simple necessities of life and not get sick being on the job. Farmers petitioned the President of the U.S. to set up a government granary that would buy unsold crops (and resell them when the market demand went up) just so that farmers could afford the tools necessary to run their farms. Skip a century. What remains in the American mindset are traces of the anti-big-business (or anti-“corporate America”, as it’s now called) and the American dream. The difference between now and the late 1800s is that the demands have extended past the realm of necessity. The “American dream” isn’t simply having a roof over your head and running water in the sink. For some people, it is living out the extravagant dreams of wealth and power or influence. People either want to be rich or famous or both. The seeds of this mindset began in the 1920s after World War 1. The get-rich-quick mentality eventually led to the crash of the stock market in October of 1929 – barely a decade after the end of the war. Then the only people with money were the big businessmen and major lenders, particularly J. D. Rockefeller who, note, built the only skyscrapers (the Rockefeller center) during the 1930s.
The interesting thing about the new concept of the “American dream” and the anti-corporation mentality is that both have extended simultaneously to where neither can reach a point of mutual agreement in society. In other words, people want to get rich, but when they do, there are other people who wish to take their money. What we have here is nothing more than selfishness, jealousy, and greed. A person may not fit under all of those descriptions (i.e. you can want to be rich without being jealous of someone else), but there are people holding that view. Some people call this socialism, but socialism is only a means to level the playing field, it isn’t the true cause of the mentality.
What about those who don’t want to get rich? Here, we could begin discussing fame, but first allow me to address the economic perspective since that’s what’s on topic. I have no statistical data to tell just how many people follow the “new American dream” from an economic standpoint, but there remains in culture a militant desire for more than the necessities of life. I have heard more in recent times about “crime” against copyright law than about people stealing something out of legitimate need for it. The fact is, there are many people still in need and just trying to get the necessities of life, but that doesn’t seem to be on the minds of people writing for the popular news media these days, or if it is, then they realize that this kind of news isn’t what America wants to here about. After all, aren’t more welfare program’s the solution to that. The problem with welfare programs is that they lump together the needy and the lazy, and it’s usually the latter who are associated with the programs – at least in the minds of economic conservatives.
Let’s consider those on welfare for a moment. Those who are too lazy to get a job quite possibly use the welfare programs to take advantage of the wealth of everyone else. After all, America can supposedly afford it (at least for awhile). This country is not doomed for economic collapse solely because there are people using and abusing welfare programs. And yet, it is not the government’s duty to provide the American citizens with food stamps. Caring for the poor is the responsibility of his neighbor. Let us recall the mindset of the times, the “American dream”, specifically the economic version. Innately built into this concept is the selfishness, for how can one be rich if there are no poor? Even in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union, when everyone was supposedly even, everyone was still poor. This is true not just by virtue of them being deprived of basic necessities (which is often conception of being “poor”) but also by comparison with those who possessed more in that country (primarily the political leaders). Hence the phrase “The rich will always be with you”.
Our objective should not be to bring the rich down to our level of prosperity, as socialism and envy prescribe. In fact, though it is ironic in today’s culture, I suggest we actually be pleased that people in our society are doing incredibly well. Many of the affluent earned their wealth, some starting from the lowest positions in a company (a Dr. Pepper C.E.O. was originally a bottle cap sorter). The work of these men have brought the U.S. into an age of prosperity, but like grass of the field, they pass away and leave their wealth in the hands of their heirs. (I am aware I can’t say that all Chief Executive Officers and company presidents have contributed to economic prosperity, but they all had to pay people to get where they are at. Also, I am not saying that they brought about the prosperity ungrudgingly or unselfishly even. One example that comes to mind is Steve Jobs – many people lamented his passing, but I can’t say I approve of some of what little of his character I have read.)
Noting that the rich have become richer over the past century, how is it that America is not suffering from a great social class divide. I do recall reading somewhere that the Communists had tried to draw American’s into believing their doctrines but struggled because a majority of Americans were falling into the newly arising “middle class”. If this is true, then the Communists, though knowing that “the rich will always be with you”, had failed to consider a route to economic prosperity. What had happened was that the pie had gotten bigger in America. Thereafter, Americans enjoyed the fruits of freedom and capitalism, an over abundance of goods.
Today, economic prosperity is practically a given. In fact, it isn’t even called that. Even many of the poor have running water in their apartments, but you don’t see them kneeling down in thanks to God for it. I can also point out the pervasiveness of the mentality on the Christian community. If you’ve been paying attention to religious movements in America, you will have probably heard of the “prosperity gospel“. (and here’s a biased article to read) Basically, certain Christians believe God intends to bless His followers here on earth with prosperity, socially, economically, domestically, etcetera. Without doubt, it is a sign of the times; it is the new American Dream. It is interesting to note that the prosperity gospel has spread overseas even to poor countries. But of course, as the Bible says, people have gone to listen to what their tickling ears want to hear.
My overarching point is that American’s track record has been one of selfishness. When managed well and people say “God bless America”, the U.S. prospers. The economic pie has gotten bigger, but the bickering continues. If we ever want to eliminate this bickering, then we’re going to need to learn to be thankful and unselfishness.
Incidentally, I began writing this article with the intention of also speaking about copyright issues since that also spawns from a desire to have more than necessary. The fact is, if everyone in America were thankful and unselfish, there would be more sharing and less to complain about. It’s an almost unbelievable conclusion, but it’s true. People in other countries already look at America as being an awesome country (but for some odd reason they don’t like the government that sustains the freedom that makes the nation prosperous). Why not make it better? What’s wrong with thankfulness that people don’t want to exercise it? Are we simply unable to refuse to ourselves that candy on the store shelf? It is perfectly fine to have desires, but are we too lazy to work to acquire them?