By Edwin Feulner
President, Heritage Foundation
Almost any time you see the phrase “the American Dream” these days, it seems to be in a negative context. The speaker is either assuring us that it’s dead, or that it can be salvaged only by a radical redefinition — one that often contradicts the basic principles this country was founded on.
So it was heartening to come across two positive references to it recently.
One was an op-ed by Sal Santoro, a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. Its title: “My Dad’s Journey to the American Dream.”
In it, Rep. Santoro used the occasion of Father’s Day to relate how his father, an immigrant from Italy, came to America at age 15 to build a better life for himself. He couldn’t speak English, but in time he became a citizen, got married, and worked hard as a tailor to support his growing family. He even served his adopted country in World War II.
The other positive reference I saw was an article in Forbes. “As the world becomes increasingly digital and other nations offer opportunity rivaling ours, many wonder if the American Dream is dying,” contributor Brian Rashid writes. “However, Joel Contartese, an American immigrant entrepreneur, can attest that American Dream is still alive and well.”
Rashid outlined several lessons that Contartese has developed. The bottom line: “His experience of coming to the United States and working diligently to better himself and his family is another inspirational tale of the American Dream offering success to those who work for it.”
There’s no question that the Dream is at least a bit more challenging to achieve today than it once was. Immigrants have long been drawn to our freedoms, whether that meant building a better life for themselves or a better invention for others. America’s business history is full of entrepreneurs who, finally able to pursue their passions, contributed handsomely to the economic engine that is the United States.
But things have changed. For decades, our government has been promoting the wrong kind of prosperity, usually for the wrong motives and the wrong people. Special interests have gotten the benefits that we pay for through higher prices, tax dollars, and lost jobs.
Hobbled by outmoded programs and accumulated layers of regulation, our economy has become less free. Government regulation of business should always be effective yet minimal, and it should always err on the side of promoting prosperity for the whole economy and all of our citizens, not just a privileged elite.
When government tries to help people in need, it often crowds out entities that could provide them with better-quality assistance. And in its zeal to prevent injury and remedy injustice, our government swims ever deeper in the riptides of overregulation.
We have partly ourselves to blame. For too long, Americans have expected government to heal even minor hurts. “There ought to be a law,” we cry, and politicians quickly enact yet another curb on our lives. How does this affect prosperity? All too heavily.
The jet engine of prosperity is economic freedom, especially the freedom to take risks. To most of the country’s chattering classes — guardians of the news but typically detached from commerce — the role of risk in business is dull stuff, hardly worth reporting. But they miss one gripping drama after another: Behind every great business coup is a huge risk boldly taken.
The high-wire daring of nervy entrepreneurs willing to outperform their competitors is essential to prosperity. “America provides plenty of tools to help you achieve your dreams, you just have to fight for it,” according to Joel Contartese.
He’s right. The question is, do enough people understand that? Our future prosperity hinges on it.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).