The American Dream: To Get Rich Quick

The American Dream: To Get Rich Quick

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Traditionally, Americans have sought to realize the American dream of
success, fame and wealth through thrift and hard work. However, the
industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries began to erode the
dream, replacing it with a philosophy of "get rich quick". A variety
of seductive but elusive strategies have evolved, and today the three
leading ways to instant wealth are large-prize television game shows,
big-jackpot state lotteries and compensation lawsuits. In this
article, Matthew Warshauer, Professor of History at Central
Connecticut State University, examines why so many Americans are
persuaded to seek these easy ways to their dream.

How does one achieve the American Dream? The answer undoubtedly
depends upon one’s definition of the Dream, and there are many from
which to choose. John Winthrop envisioned a religious paradise in a
"City upon a Hill." Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of racial
equality. Both men yearned for what they perceived as perfection.
Scholars have recognized widely varying conceptions of these quests
for American excellence. One component of the American Dream seems,
however, to be fairly consistent: the quest for money. Few will deny
that Americans are intently focused on the “almighty dollar.” In a
society dedicated to capitalism and the maxim that, “the one who dies
with the most toys wins,” the ability to purchase a big house and a
nice car separates those who are considered successful from those who
are not. Yet the question remains, how does one achieve this
success? How is the Dream realized? For many Americans the formula
is one of instant, albeit elusive, gratification. Rather than
adhering to a traditional work ethic, far too many Americans are
pinning their hopes on what they perceive as “easy” money. This
article focuses on three phenomena in contemporary American society
that have successfully captured the quest for the American Dream.
Savvy marketers have convinced their audiences that a new wave of
television game shows, lottery luck, and lucrative lawsuits are the

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way to wealth. Instant wealth has not always been a major
component of the Dream. Americans have traditionally centered their
efforts on thrift and hard work. During the Colonial Period, Benjamin
Franklin counseled people on the "The Way to Wealth." Poor Richard's
Almanac advised that "Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man
healthy, wealthy, and wise." The key to wealth was industry:
"Industry pays debts," insisted Poor Richard. Americans of the Early
Republic expanded Franklin's notion of industry into a labor
ideology. For many the goal was not extravagant wealth, but, rather,
economic independence and the opportunity for social advancement
through financial gain. Abraham Lincoln insisted that the greatness
of the American North was that industry allowed all men to prosper:
"The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages
awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself;
then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires
another new beginner to help him. This…is free labor--the just and
generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all."

In the midst of industrialization following the Civil War, many
Americans experienced profound hardship in the changing economic
landscape. They found solace in the tales of Horatio Alger, whose
characters overcame adversity through industry, perseverance,
self-reliance, and self-discipline. The ubiquitous "rags to riches"
legend became a cornerstone of American society; anyone could succeed
and achieve wealth if they worked hard. The commitment to industry
illustrated by Alger's characters, Lincoln's ideals of free labor, and
Franklin's practical maxims were further solidified in the American
mind by the addition of a religiously based, Protestant "work ethic."
Many believed that hard work allowed one to not only achieve financial
success, but, through that success, revealed God's grace.

Numerous scholars note that the shift away from the traditional
American work ethic corresponded directly with the rise of industry.
Work values changed dramatically when the assembly line production and
machine driven atmosphere of industrial America swallowed up skilled
workers. The aftermath of World War II exacerbated the ethical shift
as a consumer culture blossomed and Americans became preoccupied with
material goods. As one critic noted, “consumed by desires for status,
material goods, and acceptance, Americans apparently had lost the
sense of individuality, thrift, hard work, and craftsmanship that had
characterized the nation.”

The result of this shift in work ethic has actually spurred rather
than lessened the people’s desire to achieve the American Dream. Yet
the real difference is that the Dream has become more of an
entitlement than something to work towards. Many Americans no longer
entertain a vision for the future that includes time, sweat, and
ultimate success. Rather, they covet the shortcut to wealth. Many
who are engaged in work view it more as a necessary evil until
striking it rich. This idea has been perpetuated by a massive
marketing effort that legitimizes the message that wealth can be
obtained quickly and easily. Whether through the television
entertainment industry, state-based lottery marketing drives, or legal
advertisements, Americans are told again and again that the road to
the financial success of the American Dream is more a matter of luck
than hard work.

The "rags to riches" legend has and continues to be a cornerstone of
the American Dream. The traditional message taught that through hard
work, frugality, and self-sacrifice one could achieve financial
success and social mobility. Ben Franklin counseled industry, Abraham
Lincoln sang the praises of the northern labor system, and Horatio
Alger instilled hope in generations of Americans. All three helped to
establish basic guidelines for success in a land of infinite
possibility.

There are unquestionably many Americans who continue to abide by such
tenets and in doing so are rewarded for their efforts. Yet there are
also those who have come to believe that the American Dream's promise
of riches is just that, a promise, and as such they feel entitled to
instant financial success. Nor has the socio-corporate climate in
America disappointed such a belief. Savvy television producers and
marketing executives have latched on to the core of the American
Dream. They understand that Americans are enthralled with striking it
rich. Thus millionaire game shows are designed to make winning seem
easy. Lotteries are marketed in such a way that one thinks they have
a real shot at cashing in. The reality in both instances is that
achieving the American Dream through such means is a long shot at
best. Too much chance exists. Too much luck is necessary.

What is the end effect on society? Do millionaire game shows and
promises of lottery millions help to further erode the ethic of work
and self-reliance that once embodied the American Dream, replacing it
with an ethic of luck? Or are these sources of instant gratification
merely products of an ethic already lost to some Americans? Perhaps
the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The even darker side to this cultural phenomenon is how the sense of
entitlement has spilled over into a lack of responsibility. The fact
that so many Americans are willing to utilize litigation to cash in on
the American Dream is disheartening. Failing to take responsibility
for their own mistakes, plaintiffs look to the legal system to make
misfortune into fortune. Again, marketing and an avalanche of
advertising by personal injury lawyers helps encourage would-be injury
victims. Still, the readiness of people to sue is a key social
factor.

Ultimately, most Americans would like to achieve the American Dream of
financial independence. Yet it is the means to achieving it that are
essential to the nation's ethical foundations. It seems that many
Americans covet the easy road to the Dream and in the process undercut
the core values that established the Dream in the first place.
Equally culpable are the big businesses that capitalize on the quest
for the Dream. In an ironic sense, such businesses are fulfilling the
Dream for themselves while dangling the possibility of the Dream over
the heads of the public. There can be little doubt that the producers
of the millionaire games shows, the state lotteries, and lawyers are
getting rich on other people's yearning for the American Dream.
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