In The Epic of America (1931), James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Political theorists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to contemporary political scientists have argued that the success of a republic depends on the prosperity and economic security of its citizenry. America’s democratic political constitution has always been complemented by a democratic economic constitution — the social contract. Defined this way, the social contract is the system of economic and social arrangements — never permanent, always evolving — that help Americans as they exert themselves in individual efforts to achieve the American Dream.
Economic opportunity is composed of five elements: economic liberty, economic access, economic ability, economic adequacy, and economic security.
Economic liberty. This refers to the rights of free labor, as opposed to the unfree labor of slaves, serfs, or indentured servants.
Economic access. This requires a dynamic economy in which concentrations of wealth tend to dissipate rather than endure and in which hard-working Americans have access to property, credit, and other resources necessary for individual success.
Economic ability. Education provides the skills that are essential to the success of Americans, whether they are self-employed or working for others.
Economic adequacy. Wages for free workers should be adequate to support a minimally decent life without the need for reliance on public support — the demeaning, stigmatizing “dole” or “welfare” that Americans have always dreaded and despised.
Economic security. Economic security requires arrangements to support working Americans during periods when disabilities or downturns interrupt their stream of income from wage work or self-employment. Economic security also includes arrangements to support Americans when they cannot work at the beginning and in the later years of their lives.
None of these five elements of economic opportunity is sufficient without the others. Together, they make up the mutually reinforcing pillars of the American social contract. The methods chosen to achieve the American social contract’s goal of opportunity for American strivers have varied from the 1780s to the 2000s. The goal itself remains unchanged.
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