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What is the American dream?

For James Truslow Adams  — who coined the term in 1931 when he wrote The Epic of America —  it’s “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

For Thomas Wolfe, it’s that “… every [person], regardless of [their] birth … [has] the right to live, to work, to be [themselves], and to become whatever thing [their] vision can combine to make [them].”

For me? It’s both.

Yet for many Americans in the manufacturing sector it’s becoming increasingly more elusive, regardless of its definition.

Recently, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a report titled The Myth of America’s Manufacturing Renaissance.

In it, the ITIF states that while “most pundits and commentators [would have you believe] U.S. manufacturing has turned a corner and is roaring back after the precipitous decline during the 2000s … the data do not support such a rosy scenario.”

To support this conclusion, the ITIF compares two figures: the growth in GDP from 2007 – 2013 and the growth of manufacturing valued added over that same period.


In the table above, taken from the report, all you have to do to understand why the American Dream is elusive for those in manufacturing is look at the fact that GDP grew 5.6% while manufacturing valued added declined by 3.2%.

Though manufacturing unemployment has dropped from 12.6% to 5.3% in the last 5 years, the general health of America’s manufacturing base is weak.

To quote American Made Matters Founder and President, Don Rongione, “An economy without a strong manufacturing base will struggle to retain its wealth and to create jobs and opportunities for a better future. Loss of manufacturing means loss of independence, increased product safety concerns, weaker local communities and more citizens in need.”

So, what can we do? How can we strengthen that base?

By being self-interested.

In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville released the second volume of the French classic De la démocratie en Amérique, or Democracy in America.

In Chapter VIII of this volume, Tocqueville introduces the principle of “self-interest rightly understood” — commonly referred to as enlightened self-interest — and how the Americans use it to combat the aristocratic individualism that Tocqueville saw in his native France.

To Tocqueville, “Americans were fond of explaining all of the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; … [showing] with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.”

In the 19th century, enlightened self-interest was not just “popular” with Americans, as Tocqueville noted, but vital to the future security of the independence they won a little over 50 years prior.

Today, its seem to have lost the universal acceptance it once had and one of the many consequences has been the weakening of America’s manufacturing base, and with that, the weakening of the American Dream.

Through small acts of self-denial — like opting for an American-made product over one that’s foreign-made and costs less — we can achieve a revival of enlightened self-interest, a principle Tocqueville was not afraid to characterize as both “the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the [people] of our time” and “chief remaining security against themselves.”

Remember: For every $1 spent on American manufacturing, another $1.35 is added to our economy; for every 1 manufacturing job, another 3 are created; and if every American spent just 5% more on American-made goods, we could create 1,000,000 more jobs.

When you choose American, you’re not only making an investment in yourself, but your fellow American, while laying the foundation for a renewal of the American Dream for many that have lost hope throughout the years.

In closing, I’ll leave you with these words from Herman Melville: “A thousand fibers connect us with our [fellow American]; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

By: Houston Barnett-Gearhart