"In America You Can Be Anything You Want"

I think of all the Americans having trouble finding work, and I can't help but remember the many times I've heard the saying, 'In America , you can be anything you want.' This cheery proverb was often followed by something like: 'You can be a police officer, a prosecutor, or even the president of the United States .'

Realistically, not everyone can become president of the United States . This is only one opening available every four years, and furthermore the job requires great dedication to principle, a steadfast devotion to accomplishment, and considerable intelligence and talent. Hard as I try, I can't think of a single president in U.S. history who did not excel in every realm of achievement to the point of nearly being beyond human. And it's a good thing, because if mere mortals, flawed and imperfect, wielded the power that the president has, they would almost certainly cause tremendous damage and suffering.

Anyway, the point of the proverb was obvious. In America , if you work hard, you can fulfill your grandest dreams.

I have a number of good friends, most of them recent college graduates and all of them smart people, who have a lot of difficulty finding a job. I had a lot of trouble myself for more than half a year.

Some of my friends got much better pay as teenagers. In the late 1990s, dot-com companies would pay employees 15 to 20 dollars an hour to sit around doing practically nothing except playing pinball and consuming free Cup-O-Noodles', beef jerky, and, on Fridays, beer. I had several buddies who took advantage of the superficial economic boom, including one guy who managed to work two jobs at once. He worked at a department store, and his only charge was to sit in a room and wait for a bell to ring, at which point he would leave the room and go help move boxes or something. The bell almost never rang. Sometimes the lights would shut off, but he would be too lazy to stand up to trigger the motion detector, so instead he would sit bored in the darkness. He realized that he might as well get another paycheck, so he adopted the ritual of clocking in at the department store and leaving to work at another company, returning just in time to clock out.

Those were the days, weren't they? Not really. Today's economic slump traces back quite directly to the economic carelessness of five years ago. The dot-com bust came when the economy could no longer endure the artificial speculative hocus pocus of the late '90s, and corrected itself with the stock market decline reality check. Now it's hard to get jobs, and many of the young Americans seeking entry-level positions only have humanities degrees as their formal education and pinball playing as their job experience. Even engineers and scientists with PhDs overcrowd today's job fairs.

Economic ups and downs would not cause too many problems in a free market. Unfortunately, inflationary monetary policies and a century or more of cumulative government regulations have transformed the excitement of the market roller coaster into a bona-fide throw-up ride.

And yet, people still insist, 'In America you can be anything you want.'

Conservatives especially love to say this, cheering on the virtues of free enterprise. Liberals sometimes deny it, reproving the failures of free enterprise. Of course, as usual, both groups have some of it right and some it wrong.

Certainly, free enterprise and economic liberty are the conditions that best allow people to 'be anything they want' in the workforce. And if America had those conditions, conservatives would be right to celebrate. Liberals, on the other hand, don't have the correct solutions, but at least they recognize that we do not live in the kind of utopia conservatives sometimes claim we do, or at least as they claim we do when Republicans dominate Washington D.C.

The only reason to single out America as a country where people can 'be anything they want' is the ostensibly free economic system that allows special opportunity. When we see how restricted and restrictive the economic system actually is, it becomes harder to be so optimistic.

Poor New Yorkers who want to drive a taxi-cab legally have to pay more than $150,000 for a license, because the government has kept the number of legal taxis the same since World War II. In virtually every state in America , folks who want to make a living braiding hair into cornrows have to go through hundreds or even a thousand hours of useless cosmetic training, none of which has anything to do with their particular craft. Opening any business has become a nightmarish ordeal in most cities in the country. Before a man is allowed to lift himself by his own bootstraps, he must fill out endless paperwork to show that his boots comply with modern health and safety codes, labor regulations and licensing protocol.

I hear you even have to get your red tape certified to ensure it's the right shade of red.

Business restrictions tend to hurt the poor the most. The poor need to be able to make a marginal profit off any possible economic transaction they can elicit. They need to be able to find an economic niche, however small, and the regulations that the rich can usually navigate push the poor out of the way altogether.

Whatever happened to America ? For all its faults, it used to be fairly easy here for the poor immigrant to begin working the same day he or she landed on shore. No minimum wage laws. No unemployment insurance. None of the thousands of programs we have in place now to protect the worker from getting a job.

The poor worker of yesteryear labored long throughout the day, and it was no picnic making a living (just like everywhere else in the world since the beginning of humankind). But at least he or she had the freedom to accept nearly any job an employer was willing to offer, and to start a business with relative ease.

There were always some bureaucratic barriers in some places. In the late 1800s, San Francisco passed all kinds of laws to prevent Chinese immigrants from starting laundry businesses, an industry in which they tended to be successful. These laws actually singled out 'Chinese' people, but it seems now like similarly oppressive regulations are still in place, simply with the word 'Chinese' taken out of their language. America was never a perfect place, but its unfortunate tendency has been to remedy past injustices by making the tyranny in question impair everyone more equally.

All in all, it's becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to follow their dreams. The government, America 's number one growth industry, is always hiring. If you want to be a prison guard, a bureaucrat, or a meter maid, it's not too difficult to get your foot in the door. From then on, it's mostly effortless work and the opportunities to achieve great heights are nearly endless.

So there is some truth when children are told, 'In America , if you work hard, you can grow up to be a police officer or a prosecutor.' There's also plenty of opportunity to become a government teacher, a government contractor, a bureaucratic busybody, or an official working in the federal executive branch below the president ' even if becoming president is, as I've already explained, reserved for the truly worthy supermen among us.

Since I believe in being as honest to children as possible, I suggest that as soon as children become old enough to understand the lesson of the birds and the bees and the parable of the ants and the grasshopper, we tell them the following:

'In America , you used to be able to grow up and do almost anything you wanted. One day it might be that way again. Until that day, you have two choices. You can try to make good connections with the state, and find a way to live off the work of other people. If that doesn't interest you, you can work hard to follow your dreams. If you're lucky, you won't be derailed by the bully down the street who achieved his dream of becoming a police officer, a prosecutor, or the president of the United States .'

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Anthony Gregory's picture
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Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at LewRockwell.com. His website is AnthonyGregory.com.