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The American Dream

by John E. Nestler for the Foundation For Economic Education

The American Dream. The term has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? At one time, people were proud to believe in it, Horatio Alger was a national hero, Europeans dreamed of the day when they could migrate to the land of opportunity. But now the American Dream is no longer a subject of admiration. Instead, the use of the term is confined to satiric remarks, those who believe in it are considered naive, and to be proud of it is proof of romantic sentimentality.

I believe this change to be due to a metamorphosis of the American Dream itself — this as a result of a change in the American mentality.

A few decades ago, the American Dream was synonymous with opportunity: opportunity to endeavor after "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This opportunity was social, economic, and spiritual. As I well know from my own family, Hungarian refugees who immigrated after World War II, America was seen as the land where you could make a decent living by the sweat of your brow, where no one would tell you how and for whom to vote, and where your religious and moral beliefs could enjoy open profession.

It was precisely for this reason that Friedrich von Gentz, the eighteenth-century German philosopher, in his pamphlet comparing the French and American revolutions, granted the American Revolution validity, but not the French.¹ The American Revolution succeeded in replacing tyranny with a free and moral system of government. The French Revolution merely followed the path of previous revolutions which, as Bernard Shaw observed, "have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder."


I do not know whether I would have supported the American Revolution. Being a traditionalist, I would have been cautious and wary of sudden change; but, then, so were the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Few of them truly welcomed the revolution — the Thomas Paines were the exception, not the rule.

But I like to think that I would have possessed the discerning eye of an Edmund Burke, who, as had Gentz, forcefully denounced the French Revolution but gave his full-fledged support to the American Revolution. The cries of "laissez-faire" which resounded when Frenchmen stormed the Bastille found a home, not in France, but across the ocean.

The American Dream was imbued with the concept of the individual: each man would reap the fruits of his own labor. America was the land of the rugged individual, who carved out his life with his own hands and accounted to noone but himself for his failures. This is not to say that America was regarded as a land of permissiveness; to the contrary, only a blunt mind would equate freedom with license. Rather, America was regarded as the personification of those ideals of freedom which lay in the hearts of most men.

Today, In Contrast

Let us compare this view of the American Dream with that of today. Whereas the American Dream was once equated with certain principles of freedom, it is now equated with things. The American Dream has undergone a metamorphosis from principles to materialism.

Decades ago, a man would have said he wanted a day’s wages for a day’s work. Wasn’t that materialism? No, because what was being emphasized was that each man, as a free and individual agent, has the right to as much as the market will pay for his efforts. Today, a man would say merely that he has a right to live comfortably; the fact that comfort must be earned is ignored; the question of whether the person is deserving of comfort never arises.

I am reminded of the welfare recipient on the David Susskind Show a few years ago, who demanded that she receive a more substantial Christmas welfare bonus. When asked why she held this opinion, she replied: "Because I have a right to a color T.V. set and things like other people. I am a human being, too, you know." This attitude has permeated our society: things are what is important, principles are not.

When people are concerned more with the attainment of things than with the maintenance of principles, it is a sign of moral decay. And it is through such decay that loss of freedom occurs.

This metamorphosis of the human spirit did not come about unforeseen. Although he was not writing specifically about America, Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his The Revolt of the Masses, clearly delineated the process by which the individual would eventually be sacrificed to the mass-man; the mass-man thereby destroying that which made possible his very existence.

In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses today toward the civilization by which they are supported.

Respect for the rights of the individual has been the foundation for America’s greatness; it was the reason for the immigration to America from all around the world. It is precisely this respect which has deteriorated as a result of the efforts of the mass-man in America, this laying the groundwork for a totalitarian welfare state.

The fact that individualism was once revered and welfare abhorred does not mean that people were heartless and unconcerned about one another — this being the picture most often presented by our liberal media. In fact, there were more private charitable organizations before the advent of the welfare state than since. A more personal concern existed among men, because an individual was free to aid another individual if he wished to. That was charity in the true Christian sense.

No Longer by Choice

Nowadays, we are forced to contribute to the welfare of others, whether we wish to or not, whether others are deserving or not. That is said to be true humanity. But, assuming for the moment that it is humane to aid others (which, of course, does not hold true for the indiscriminate distribution of aid), is a person humane or virtuous if he so acts only when forced at gun-point? Obviously not. Yet, that is the welfare state we "philosophically" admire, the one that coerces every individual to sacrifice his own interests and indiscriminately aid others. It is not charity I oppose, but robbery.

Let me try to make my position clear. I do believe in the viability of the free market and in the right of men to govern themselves, but I do not believe every man always is moral or that the free market would solve all human ills. Freedom entails responsibilities, and too few of us are willing to assume responsibility. Fortunately, tradition forms the basis for laws and provides us with guidelines, although imperfect, on what is correct human conduct.

For example, I will defend any man’s right to express his opinions, but I will not allow anyone to utter obscenities to my sister. I would call on the police to apprehend such an individual. I believe there is a difference between right and wrong, and defend or excuse no man’s persistence in the latter.

Such problems as what is meant by freedom of speech do not disturb me. As a conservative, I view human nature as tainted, prone to error. In fact, too often have I seen libertarianism used as an excuse for libertinism. Therefore, I disagree with those who offer unlimited and unprincipled liberty as the ultimate solution, for I view such a belief as Utopianism.

No system can compensate for man’s inherent defects.

The Totalitarian State

A recent article by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in National Review points out, for example, that what "Hitler aimed at was `a century of the common man’ in the sense in which Henry A. Wallace used the term in the 1940s." Here we may substitute mass-man for common man — a frequent misuse of terms. Hitler implemented this plan not through a military coup but through "Germanic democracy."

The totalitarian welfare state is emerging in America, through democratic means, just as it emerged in Hitler Germany. The individual is no longer sacrosanct, and Ortega’s prediction of the sacrifice of the individual to the mass-man seems more realistic every day.

National Socialism and Communism are alike in that both systems are socialistic; that is, both systems regard the individual as a pawn for manipulation for "the greater good of the community." It was this concept of socialism that was responsible for Tocqueville’s vision of the coming of "democratic totalitarianism."

America has already changed, and this change is noticeable in the metamorphosis of the American Dream. The individual’s free will is reduced by taking away the opportunities for exercising individual and voluntary decisions. This is immoral, and contrary to Christian precepts.

This change is not causeless —it is the result of moral deterioration, of the mass-man’s turning the concepts of good and evil to his own purpose. The mass-man prefers materialism over principles, and the American Dream reflects the efforts to enforce this preference.

Yet, we must not despair, the situation is far from hopeless. The solution is to assert the old principles, our concepts of right and wrong, our belief in the inalienable freedom and liberty of the individual. Then, the American Dream will regain its former identity, and America will remain the best of all possible lands, admired by all the world. But this will come about only with the active participation of us all, and by the grace of God.

Crowd Culture

By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images — which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd —and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.


This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on October 1973.

About The Author

John E. Nestler is a pre-med student at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, majoring in Chemistry and German, but much interested in politics and philosophy. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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