For more than two centuries, the American dream –- the idea that everyone in this country can achieve personal success through hard work and determination -- has been a source of hope, envy and inspiration to people around the world. An alternative vision for the 21st century may now be emerging in Europe.
Americans like to vacation in Europe if they can afford it. They enjoy its culture, its food and its diversity. They envy Europeans their longer vacations, shorter working hours and social benefits. But they also consider Europe’s economy to be sluggish, its productivity low, its organization too bureaucratic and its policies weak and ineffective.
Niall Ferguson, professor of economic history at Harvard University, says despite its enlargement, Europe can never really compete with the United States. "Whether in economic, in cultural, in political or in international terms, the European Union is an entity on the brink of decline and even dissolution," he contends.
Some would disagree. The greater European Union is facing transitional problems, but there have been improvements: a growing economic and political influence, a strong European currency, more cultural diversity. Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and author of a book titled The European Dream,says these improvements, coupled with estrangement from the United States, have encouraged some western European leaders to offer their own vision for the 21st century: one they think better suited for the new globalized world than the American Dream of individual success and self-reliance.
"Americans believe they can be an island in and of themselves; in other words, self-contained," says Mr. Rifkin. "The problem is we live in a world that’s much more densely connected. We live in a world where we are all vulnerable to things that happen everywhere else. So a SARS (disease) epidemic can affect us in a matter of months. A computer virus can affect all of us around the world in a mater of weeks. A terrorist attack can affect the whole world in a matter of days, or a financial scandal somewhere in the world in hours."
Mr. Rifkin says the European dream, as he calls this alternative vision for humanity, is almost the opposite of the American dream. It emphasizes the success of the community rather than of an individual. It values quality of life more than material success. It is concerned with sustainable development and environmental protection. And it prefers peaceful conflict resolution to armed intervention. In the meantime, says Mr. Rifkin, many Americans are beginning to question their dream.
Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, cites the growing gap between rich and poor as the biggest threat to the American Dream: "One percent of Americans own about 50 percent -- almost half -- of the investment wealth. Just one percent. That is a medieval concentration." Professor Alperovitz says the promise that wealth would trickle down to the middle and low-income classes has not been fulfilled.
Jeremy Rifkin adds that surveys indicate the United States now ranks lower than most industrialized nations in equality of income. And that hinders upward mobility, a key aspect of the American dream: "Only Mexico and Russia score lower. So what’s happened in this country is millions of people worked hard, they played by the script and they are not able to move up the ladder any more."
Mr. Rifkin says many new immigrants who come to the United States to escape poverty remain poor. Those who achieve material success often say it has come at the expense of social, family and cultural life. But Professor Alperovitz says that picture of America is incomplete. There is more to Americans than self-striving: "There’s also community service. There is neighborhood participation. There are more people now involved in worker-owned companies than there are members of unions in the private sector. So there is another side of America which is communitarian." And it is this communitarian America that will help revive the American dream, says Gar Alperovitz. The European vision for the 21st century is very attractive, but in his opinion unrealistic because of the transitional difficulties facing the enlarged union.
Jeremy Rifkin agrees that as Europe grows, so do its problems. "There’s growing anti-Semitism in Europe. There’s discrimination against Muslim minorities," he says. In these circumstances, the vision of a culturally diverse, "Green Europe" may indeed seem utopian. But 200 years ago America’s founders crated a radical new dream for humanity that has transformed the world, notes Mr. Rifkin. Today, Europeans are trying to create a different, but also worthy new dream.