Our idea of the American Dream has changed through the years, just as the country has changed. The closing of the frontier and the end of homesteading has meant that starting off anew out West is not as simple as it once was. The decline of manufacturing jobs means more education is often, but not always, needed to achieve self-sufficiency. But the basic idea has endured from the founding until today, and it is different than what the average person expects in other countries.
If the dream has narrowed with the settling of the West, it has also broadened in its applicability. The American Dream of 1850, for example, was not something black people or American Indians could dream. The theory was there, and it was a good one, but it was not yet a theory that all Americans could access. (Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again” gets at this point.)
Today, even if the promise of a western homestead no longer exists, the possibility of rising and prospering beyond one’s station of birth is now one in which all Americans, whatever race and however recently arrived, may participate.
One important facet of that dream, then and now, is the idea that each generation in America should do better than the one that came before. It forms an essential part of the immigrant’s vision: not just that he will prosper here, but that his children and grandchildren will use his success to build their own even greater success, as the family eventually becomes indistinguishable from those whose roots lie deeper in the American past.
A question most people never have to bother with is: What happens when you get to the top? Once you and your family have achieved success in America, once you find yourself in the highest ranks of the economy, either through your own efforts or your ancestors’, what do you do now? The answer to this question has changed more than the dream has, and the results of that change are at the heart of what ails American society.
Let’s Revisit the Standard American Dream
The standard version of the American Dream is what most of us—myself included—grew up knowing. The goal of people who had their act together was to advance the family in society. Immigrants often arrive here with little, and work hard to give the next generation a good foundation. Those kids get good jobs, become good Americans, and advance their offspring, and so on until we all live in nice neighborhoods and are every bit as good and respectable as those whose people arrived on the Mayflower. That was the story in my family, and it served us well.
I assumed this was a universal American ideal until I met some different kinds of people. Only then did it occur to me that this American ideal of generational advancement loses coherence once you get to the top.
Lots of kids in my neighborhood were the first in their family to go to college, or else their parents were. That’s a classic American story. But how does that story get told when your ancestor graduated from Harvard College in 1731? What is the goal for a family once all the standard goals have been attained, repeatedly, for generations?
For earlier generations, the answer was charity. There was the idea that before you can do good you must do well. That is, you should attain worldly success so you survive and prosper, but if that still leaves you with plenty of money, you now have the means to help more people who do not have as much.
This attitude was primarily a religious one, and was by no means one every rich person followed—greed exists in every time and place. But it was, at least, an ideal. It was something to which respectable people (or those wishing to appear respectable) would aspire.
The Roosevelt family is a good example of this kind of thinking. The two branches of the family best known to us had differing politics, with Theodore Roosevelt’s branch being Republicans and his cousin Franklin’s branch being Democrats, but both believed in the idea of volunteering their time and money to help the poor.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr, the father of the president of the same name, was a particular exemplar of this tradition. He inherited wealth and made even more in the glass industry, but his real passion was charity. Among other endeavors, he was one of the founders of the Newsboys Lodging House, which provided a home to the mostly homeless, often orphaned boys who hawked newspapers on the streets of New York.
Today’s Rich Don’t Follow This Pattern As Much
Modern secular rich people are less likely to follow Roosevelt’s example. There are still charitable people in America. Indeed, we have always been among the most charitable nations and still are. But as religion has faded in American life, it has been replaced by socialistic impulses that supposedly aim at the same goal—helping the poor—but fall short in both the means and the end.
The rise of everyday socialist rhetoric has made the non-religious rich embarrassed of their inherited wealth and social capital. No one should be embarrassed by his ancestors’ actions, whether good or ill, since we have no control over them, but they are, so wealth leads to angst. This was true before, with charity as the solution. Now, the answer has changed. The pseudo-religion of socialism tells the rich that private charity by wealthy families is backward and feudal, the noblesse oblige that ossifies the class structure.
That same pseudo-religion demands that government take over these formerly private responsibilities through the welfare state. That has its own problems, but in this case it specifically handcuffs the limousine liberal by telling him his wealth is shameful, yet to give it away personally is also problematic.
The solution is, of course, more socialism! Why give away money when you can use the government to take it by force? So they become acolytes of redistribution, but because we don’t have (and never will have) full socialism in America, their secular original sin is never washed away.
This condition produces the spiritual confusion seen in essays like the recent one by Will Leitch, “How to Raise a Son.” Instead of being thankful for his success and hoping to use it to do good in the world, Leitch obsesses about privilege, claiming instead that “the lessening power of men (straight and white particularly) is an unquestioned societal good.”
Guilt is a powerful motivation. But where successful people of an early time assuaged their guilt by using their power to help others, the modern-day success story ends with angst over the un-shrive-able sin of privilege. Instead of using societal advantages positively, the idea now is to destroy power without the means of erecting anything to take its place. Both systems make demands on the rich, but our modern secular society never allows them to meet those demands. Nothing is good enough.
This Produces Some Terrible Results
The result is a spiritual rot at the top of the social pyramid that is spreading down to the rest of the country. Even if the results were the same (they’re not) having socialism take the place of religion is bad for people’s souls. Successful people who adhere to it walk about in constant guilt, not over actual sins against God, but over the success they or their ancestors achieved, which socialism damns as impure. There is no forgiveness, no absolution, only taxes. The promise of that next-level American Dream—helping others achieve theirs—is replaced with bureaucratic drudgery and permanent penance.
Of course, the aim of charity and of the welfare state is to help the poor, not to lift up the souls of the rich. If the welfare state did a wonderful job of achieving its goals, we could be forgiven for ignoring its other flaws. But it does nothing of the sort. Instead, the disconnection of the helper from the helped with its consequent lack of responsibility turns the voluntary act of charity from an involved donor into a coerced transfer from a disinterested taxpayer.
The disconnection is bad for donor and recipient. People who receive government benefits are confronted with a bewildering system of programs, each with its own unique requirements, all administered by a bureaucracy that will exist whether the poor get the benefits or not. All of this is controlled from Washington and ruled by mandates of an ever-shifting political class that imposes whatever level of strictness or leniency it thinks will win the most votes at the next election.
It also adds to the larger problem of people being alienated from society. The decline of cultural institutions has many causes, but one must be the replacement of volunteering and charity with taxes and bureaucracy. People lament the fall of institutions that once included broad swathes of society, but the only answer our politicians have, whether with regard to charities or any other local group, is more government. And more government always ends up being more centralized government, and thus more alienation.
Charity Is Not Welfare
Charities and the welfare systems sound similar, but have subtly different results in mind. Charity hopes to lessen poverty and even to lift some people out of it, but does not assume the problem can ever be cured. The welfare state, in its hubris, claims nothing less than the eradication of want as its goal. The War on Poverty has dragged on for more than 50 years and costs more with each passing budget, but no end is in sight.
In uprooting and centralizing Americans’ charitable impulses into a bureaucracy, we have removed any responsibility from donors. How often have you heard someone decline to give to someone in need in his own community, then complain the federal safety net is not strong enough? When something becomes everyone’s responsibility, it is effectively no one’s responsibility. No one looks into welfare programs to see that they are actually helping in their community; all they do is complain about politicians and vote the way they were going to vote already.
Practitioners of religious charity could have predicted this. They occupy the ideological middle ground between socialists who demand ever more resources for bureaucratic programs that do not work and libertarians who see the failure of these programs and demand that we cease our efforts. Both, in their ideology, lose track of the impetus behind charity: it is good to help people. It is good for the recipient of aid, good for the donor, and good for society.
True charity, with its lack of coercion, benevolent intentions, limited aims, and true connection between giver and receiver, is one of the finest ideas in any society. By forcing it under state control through erecting an expensive welfare state, we have done no favors to the poor and made the rich and middle-class more useless and disconnected from their fellow Americans. Charity is not always talked about as a part of the American Dream, but it has always been there. Slowly, the welfare state has been squeezing the life out of this part of the American Dream, replacing it with social alienation and bureaucracy.