American Dream: Still valid in today’s world

President Ronald Reagan loved to say that, “America is a shining city on a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” And so it has been since the days of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, who on his way to the New World in 1630 added that “the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Indeed, the American dream has been so inspiring that people from every corner of the world have sought refuge and opportunity on our shores. The linchpins of this dream have always been freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, property rights, the development of markets, and the liberating power of innovation fueled in large part by newcomers whose lives and aspirations had been stifled in their native lands.

Today, though, there is a growing chorus of revisionists who argue that the great gift of American innovation to the rest of the world is more of a Trojan horse – that the market economy itself is a “suicide machine” that must be stopped if humanity is to survive.

One such revisionist is Annie Leonard, a social activist who used to work for Greenpeace. Her 21-minute interactive video, “The Story of Stuff,” is making the rounds in green circles, churches, and via the Internet (over 3 million viewings to date). The film, funded in part by the Tides Foundation, even won an award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, as the best interactive educational resource.

Annie’s film “exposes” the horrific “materials economy,” which she argues is a creation of egoistic Americans who wanted to find a way to jumpstart our economy at the close of World War II. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow, she notes, wanted Americans to “convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption….”

So now we are stuck, she says, in this never-ending cycle of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal that has so depleted our own resources that we have had to start using up everyone else’s. [Worse, though she dares not say it, we have infected the Chinese, the Indians, and others around the world with this consumption disease that makes humans more ravenous than Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.]

The greater evil, according to Leonard, is that governments and multinational corporations (which effectively own governments, she assures us) have colluded to ensure that the real costs of goods and services are externalized – or borne by third parties, usually the poor.

She backs up her assertions with “facts.” For example, “80% of the planet’s original forests are gone.” Hmmmm! So since the dawn of time, we still have 20% of our original forest land? Another “source” claims that all of the wealth has been drained out of poor nations – such that there is none left for the native populations to use. One can only wonder why U.S. corporations continue to relocate to such areas of the world?

Another group of liberal folks have started calling the global economy a “suicide machine” operated by “theo-capitalists” whose creed has four “spiritual laws” – the law of progress through rapid growth, the law of serenity through possession and consumption, the law of salvation through competition alone, and the law of freedom to prosper through unaccountable corporations.

Author-theologian Brian McLaren, in his book, Everything Must Change, claims that, in the documentary The Corporation, Canadian criminal psychologist Dr. Robert Hare (coauthor of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work) likens corporations to criminal psychopaths. Both company’s and criminals, McLaren infers –

— show a callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
— display an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.
— show reckless disregard for the safety of others.
— manifest habitual deceitfulness, lying and conning others when it is profitable to do so.
— fail to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors.
— demonstrate an incapacity to experience guilt.

Like Leonard, McLaren urges us to stop believing that our current societal machinery is working just fine, that we can seek prosperity without regard to ecological limits, that we can achieve true security through military dominance and peace through violence. As if we actually believe these things!

Leonard and McLaren both attack the capitalist system [aka the machine] without questioning whether government bureaucracies are any better (if not far worse, given their power to incarcerate and punish). Both believe there are much better alternatives. Leonard’s salvation is through green chemistry, zero waste, closed loop production, renewable energy, and local living economies. McLaren just begs us to stop believing in the suicide machine and set about dismantling it altogether.

Neither acknowledges that both Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, and James Madison, the chief architect of the American political system, accepted the fact that the systems they espoused were amoral institutions. Nor do they recall that Alexis de Tocqueville observed our institutions would be good only so long as the people running them remained virtuous.

The fact is that our market system – indeed, our entire polity – relies on the premise that competition balances out the rational self-interest of all participants – so long as it operates in an environment that demands adherence to moral obligations.

Both Leonard and McLaren seem to believe that if we can just break the power of corporations, our governing institutions will cleanse themselves. The reality is that all of us must stop seeing wrongdoing only by our political enemies and regain our moral compass for our own decisions.

A far different viewpoint on the workings of the world capitalist system is presented in a new book by Indian-born journalist Fayeed Zakaria entitled, The Post-American World. Zakaria shows how the exporting of American capitalism, and to a growing extent American ideas on how to organize the political arena, is leading to the greatest increase in real wealth worldwide in human history.

Zakaria also begins with America’s post-World War II effort to promote capitalism and free markets as a worldwide economic model. Using this model, entrepreneurs have created new technologies that are liberating many from subsistence-level farming and providing real-time communication and increased access to knowledge for billions of people in even the poorest nations.

Just since President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, Zakaria notes that the number of people living on a dollar or less a day has shrunk from 40% to just 18% of the world’s population, with projections down to 12% by 2015. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the global economy has grown from $22.8 trillion to $53.3 trillion, with over half of that growth in emerging markets. Even Leonard’s “exploited poor” are becoming producers and consumers.

All over the world – from China and Germany to Bangladesh and Nigeria – people have bought into the message that free trade across national boundaries is a societal good, according to the 2007 Pew Global Survey. Nations everywhere are not just opening markets, they are also embracing trade and new technologies, democratizing their political systems, and freeing up their currencies to strengthen their economies – all embracing their own particular versions of the American dream.

Zakaria argues that America’s success as a nation has come not from government programs but because its people have kept themselves open to the world – to goods and services, to ideas and innovations, and above all to people and cultures. In his view, the “machine” has proven to be a useful tool for human liberation – not human enslavement. As evidence, he points to economic and political progress in nations long gripped by poverty and disease and to raised aspirations of young people who have seen a world culture in which they want a stake.

Zakaria warns his readers against fear-mongers in the media and the political arena who play on xenophobia and envy and thus would have us put up walls to re-divide “us” from “them.” We need, he urges, to remember the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” words he spoke as our nation was facing its greatest economic crisis.

Only if Americans hold to the dreams that they share with the rest of the world – for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – will this nation remain as the first among brothers in the emerging world economy. In the past, says Zakaria, we often relied upon our might rather than our ideals to reinforce our leadership in the world. In the future, we will have to rely all the more on our heritage of human rights to remain, or regain, our place on top of the world.

Americans, like Ronald Reagan, should always hold an optimistic view of the future. We must continue to embrace the freedom of opportunity that has made us the first among nations – where people from all over the world can work and share in a common dream and destiny. In short, we must continue to be “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”

Duggan Flanakin, based in Austin, Texas, serves as a CFACT environmental programs officer.

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CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.