Sunday, January 4, 2009

The United States is No Longer the Land of Opportunity

This article was originally published at americanchronicle.com on Jan. 3rd, 2009.

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

As you likely know, the above quote is from the poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus. It is the statue herself speaking at the end of the poem. The poem emphasizes the liberty offered to those who would come to the shores of the United States of America to escape the state regulations and tyrannical laws they faced from the governments of their home countries. It was the freedom from such government regulations that made America the land of opportunity. I´m afraid that kind of opportunity is quickly going the way of the dinosaurs in this country as our government becomes the same kind of intrusive entity our forefathers were trying to escape from.

There was a time in this country when a man could start a business from nothing. I´ve heard and read stories about people coming to this country penniless and working hard to build a life for themselves and their families. Some came to these shores and found work with their fellow countrymen who had come earlier and set up businesses. Others opened their own businesses or started moving westward as the country expanded. In this way we grew to become a mighty and prosperous nation. Those times are long gone.

Some might say that this is because times have changed. Others might claim that there is no longer any room to grow. I respectfully disagree. Times have changed to such an extent that opportunity and growth should now be more prevalent than ever due to our ever changing technology. And there is always room to grow, for wealth is created not something stagnant and finite. There is no reason there shouldn´t be ample opportunity for all of us to create our own wealth. In fact, there is no reason why people all over the entire planet shouldn´t be improving their lot in life. There is but one thing standing in the way of common folk improving their worth and creating a world of plenty for all. Government. Government restrictions and regulations and government imposed monopolies have stifled our independent interactions with one another and created the economic mess and political turmoil that pervades our everyday existence at this moment in time.

Opportunities still exist in this country, but not if you don´t have the money to pay the bureaucrats running the system for permission first. And, of course, if you are a friend of someone in power, even at a local level, then opportunities are much more available to you than they are to a poor schmuck like me. It´s not what you know, it´s who you know. Money begets more money. Etc, etc. ad nausea. These tiring clich├ęs, although true, do not represent what made this country the shining example of prosperity it once was. What made it great was the fact that the common man could become uncommonly wealthy with hard work and ingenuity. That is no longer true. That is what we need to recapture.

I´ve had a little dream since I was a child. I´ve always wanted to own a little magic/Halloween costume/party supply/novelty store. Recently, that dream came back to the forefront of my mind as I saw a sign in a storefront window advertising a $10,000 grant to someone willing to open a store in the area. I began to think that it might be nice to try to realize this lifelong dream so that I would have something of significance to leave my children. I decided to look into it.

The grant was offered by the local chamber of commerce, but the city council would also be involved. They would have to ok the idea for the store. They would also need to look at a business plan. I have no idea how to prepare a business plan, but I was instructed in where to look and what to do by a friend of mine who happens to own a candle shop. My business plan would have been to buy wholesale the products I planned on selling retail, perhaps advertise a little on the Internet and in local papers, and set up a storefront which hopefully would have attracted customers looking for the kind of wares I planned on selling. I also thought I´d partner up with local talent such as magicians, clowns, etc. who would perform in my store to showcase their services to potential costumers and help sell my wares.

They also would have helped me obtain a loan, which would have been quite sizable. It would have more than likely taken some time before I could make enough profit to be surviving off of something other than borrowed money. Also, there were many restrictions on what the ten grand could be spent on and I would have to come up with the money in the first place. The deal wasn´t as appealing as it first appeared to be.

To top things off, the grant money I would have been receiving was taxpayer money. In essence, I would have been subsidized by people in the city who may not have necessarily been interested in purchasing the goods I would have offered. This seemed just plain wrong to me. Had I succeeded, I would have in essence become part of the gang which sees nothing wrong with stealing peoples´ hard earned money through taxation and redistributing the wealth to those who haven´t necessarily earned it. Perhaps ten years ago I might have looked at things a bit differently, but not today. I decided not to even apply for the grant. If I´m ever able to open a shop like the one I dream of, it will be through my own efforts and with only my own finances at risk. I will succeed or fail on my own terms.

I visited that area again not long ago and noticed that someone had opened a bridal shop in the same storefront I had seen the grant offer in earlier this summer. I had to wonder if the store had opened in hopes of receiving said grant money. Another thought occurred to me as I admired a beautiful wedding dress in the window. I wondered if the owner of the store knew someone involved with the chamber of commerce or on the city council. I wondered if I would have even had a chance had I decided to apply for the grant.

After some time, I began to wonder what shop had occupied the storefront before the bridal shop. Perhaps it had been a thriving store at one time, employing a number of people, but the products it offered had fallen out of favor and it had failed. Perhaps many shops had occupied that storefront and many had failed. I simply didn´t know. Whatever the case, it occurred to me that one person´s failure had become another person´s opportunity, only now that opportunity may have been pinned upon the hopes of receiving some involuntary help from taxpayers who may never use the goods or services offered by those who receive their money. I wonder if anyone will ever be able to apply oneself and create a successful business from scratch again, or are we now all destined to become dependent on the state and stolen tax money in order to offer any goods and services to our fellow citizens.

And, of course, things could still get worse. Perhaps this bridal shop will not be allowed to fail. Perhaps it will become too big or too important to fail. Perhaps one day the city council will determine that it has to bailout the shop, that it´s too important an institution, that they can´t let it go out of business for fear other downtown businesses will follow suit. Perhaps they will be shoveling more taxpayer money than they have into a poorly run institution just to keep it afloat. When this happens then there will truly be no opportunity left for the little guy. Hard work and innovation will no longer make much of a difference.

Such is the problem with the financial and now the auto maker bailouts. Soon, there will be no room for the innovative entrepreneur. Soon, the state will own too much and too many institutions will be too big to fail. As this happens everything stagnates. Eventually, something has to fail so the new can take root. If the government owns too much and stumbles under its own weight, the failure that occurs will be bigger and hurt more than it would have had we let the private institutions fail when they should have. Perhaps civil society itself will be the biggest casualty. Perhaps all of creation will come crashing down upon us. I hope not, but if such a catastrophe happens I hope that someday we have the intelligence and foresight to create a free and open society where competition is rampant and opportunity presents itself to anyone willing to work for it.

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