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Is It Time To Replace The American Dream?

Today's youth find little value in the caricature of human nature as rational, calculating and utilitarian. They prefer to think of human nature as empathic.

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The following is an adapted excerpt from Jeremy Rifkin's new book, ' The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis' (Tarcher/Penguin; January 2010).

For two hundred years the American Dream has served as the bedrock foundation of the American way of life. The dream, reduced to its essence, is that in America, every person has the right and opportunity to pursue his or her own individual material self interest in the marketplace, and make something of their life, or at least sacrifice so the next generation might enjoy a better life. The role of the government, in turn, is to guarantee individual freedom, assure the proper functioning of the market, protect property rights, and look out for national security. In all other matters, the government is expected to step aside so that a nation of free men and woman can pursue their individual ambitions.

Although American history is peppered with lamentations about the souring of the dream, the criticism never extends to the assumptions that underlie the dream, but only to political, economic and social forces that thwart its realization. To suggest that the dream itself is misguided, outdated, and even damaging to the American psyche, would be considered almost treasonous. Yet, I would like to suggest just that.

The American Dream was spawned in the afterglow of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago, at the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era. Enlightenment philosophers painted a new picture of human nature more in line with the new market forces that were promising a qualitative uplift in the standard of living of human beings. For 1500 years, during the feudal and medieval periods, the Church's dark view of human nature prevailed. Christian theologians exclaimed that babies are born depraved and in sin, and that personal salvation must await them in the next world with Christ. The Enlightenment philosophers views were a breath of fresh air, promising that market forces, if left unhindered by government, would guarantee every person the opportunity to improve his or her station in life. John Locke, Adam Smith, René Descartes, Marquis de Condorcet and other Enlightenment sages were of the belief that human beings were, by nature, materialistic, self-interested, and driven by the biological urge to be propertied, autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, and sovereign over their own domain.

Today, that dream is still fiercely championed by libertarian ideologues and tea party populists. Their increasingly shrill defense of the American Dream, however, seems almost panic stricken in tone, suggesting a desperate effort to hold on to a belief that may, in fact, be passing away.

How else do we account for the fact that the public discourse is becoming so ugly of late? The populist backlash against big government represents more than just a clash over legislative priorities. The opposition to a government stimulus to jumpstart an ailing economy, the reluctance to adopt universal health care, and the growing denial of human induced climate change speak to a deeper sense of apprehension and foreboding. Granted, there are legitimate concerns one might raise to each of these public policy issues. My sense however, is that there is something more profound taking place under the surface, a feeling, particularly among an older generation of Americans, that the American Dream is in jeopardy and, with it, our way of life.