By Dane Stier
On May 24, 1607, England established its first permanent settlement in the New World–Jamestown.
Though many years passed before its realization, that moment is arguably the singular most substantial gamechanger of the last 1000 years.
Suddenly, in a world of monarchy, poverty, injustice, and religious persecution, there now existed a land of second chances. People could escape debt, humiliation, hardship, persecution, and subjugation at the price of a trans-Atlantic ticket.
Expatriates could create new lives, new jobs, and better futures for themselves and their children. By the very method of its conception, this country offered opportunities that did not exist anywhere else in the world. The centuries’ old conceptual associations with the American Dream and ‘land of opportunity’ quite evidently conform to the unique legacy of America.
In fact, the legacy of second chances integrally guided the rise of the United States’ influence and economic prowess until at least the time of the Second World War. After political disaffiliation with Europe, many Americans sought renewed opportunity in unsettled lands. In a war cry of Manifest Destiny, Horace Greeley famously stated, “Go West, young man, go West….” The drive West, in its simplest form, amounted to the brave quest for a fresh start.
For a very long time, the word ‘opportunity’ connotated a distinct American concept rooted entirely in the premise of freedom. Opportunity was not provided, but created. Opportunity did not exist institutionally, but was a force of unlimited potential creation for anyone who elected to use it.
Today, opportunity means something completely different–indeed, it is diametrically opposed to its original intent. Politically, “opportunity” often derives support from such reinterpreted broad motivations as “equality of opportunity”. In turn, movements for equality of education, race, gender, etc. have relied upon the reimagination of opportunity’s Americanism, and as a result, educational opportunity equates to “everyone should go to college”, and economic opportunity equates to “everyone has the right a job” or “everyone has a right to a living wage”. But since when has opportunity meant that you have the right for another person to give you something–in other words, since when has “opportunity” become a cover for positive rights? (For a great explanation of positive vs. negative rights, please refer to the former Chronicle article Rights in a Free Society.)
In today’s America, particularly among youth, the word “opportunity” has become synonymous with “privilege”; the privilege of receiving an affordable college education, the privilege of receiving cheap and thorough healthcare, the privilege of being hired at a satisfactory wage. This view of opportunity is rooted in European values. East of the Atlantic, individuals pride themselves on offering the “opportunity” of a non-burdening work week, guaranteed paid vacations, and universal healthcare. None of these are opportunities. They are socially institutional conveniences of a wealthy civilization. So long as the demand for such conveniences exceeds the availability, injustice shall be claimed.
It is in the vital interest of sustained American vitality that our society reject European “opportunity” and return to its original meaning. Here, opportunity means the potential to create a company, rather than the privilege of being given a job. It means the potential to work hard (be it a second job, longer hours, or using education to increase qualifications) to afford better healthcare, a new car, or earlier retirement. It means the opportunity to live anywhere or find success in any career, as so many iconic American heroes have demonstrated.
This limitless vision of America, where impossible is meaningless and possibility is everything, resides at the heart of American pride, and even at the heart of the most significant document in United States’ history: the Declaration of Independence. In the most memorable and quoted phrase of that revolutionary document, Thomas Jefferson inscribed four simple words to forever epitomize American opportunity: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Not Life, Liberty, and a Job, or Healthcare, or even, simply, Happiness. Jefferson purposely said pursuit of Happiness. People have the right to do whatever they need to do to achieve happiness, whatever that may mean to them. It has no qualifications. It has no declarations of privilege. Instead, he eloquently and lucidly acknowledged the utterly American idea of opportunity.
It is time to return to that vision.