The Land of Unlimited Opportunity

I’m currently reading a book called Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth RosenfeldIt’s a very good book, an interesting book; but the subject of this post is not the book itself. The subject is an elaboration on something that I read within it, something that deals with a subject I’ve been meaning for some time now to dwell on: money.

The author of Subversives quotes Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, as saying that growing up in Dixon, Illinois had taught Reagan that “America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who did hard work.” This is, of course, a  commonly held sentiment in the United States. For most people, not to believe in this idea makes you some kind of a Socialist or a bum. Probably both. What’s to argue with? Hard work is a good thing. Unlimited opportunity is a good thing. Well, I have plenty of arguments, and on several levels. But here, I’m going to tackle it from just one level because it’s an idea that is seldom raised.

What did Reagan mean by “unlimited opportunity?” I think he meant to make as much money as you can. The sky’s the limit! Opportunity can mean other things—the opportunity to be in a position of power, the opportunity to be famous—but I think most people understand it to mean getting rich. (Let it be said: all three qualities—power, fame, and wealth—are negatives.) Working hard to obtain unlimited opportunity is really just putting a nice shine on greed. People say, “It’s not greed if you earned it.” But making an effort to obtain more stuff than you need is the definition of greed.

My fundamental opposition is the assumption that we should spend all our lives working hard to obtain “stuff.” That’s not what life is about. A certain amount of labor is necessary, of course. The Buddhists have a term I like: Right Livelihood. It means that the work you do for your survival should be seamless with your inner life and contribute to the healthy maintenance of the world around you. But it is, of course, very difficult to find that kind of work nowadays. Society is structured to keep us working at essentially meaningless jobs that benefit only the powerful. A lot of these jobs, if not most, are destructive to the general well-being.

So, if life is not about making money, what’s it about? I believe it’s about the development of the inner self, the solving of the riddles of Life. Most Americans are uncomfortable with this idea. They consider it foreign or New Agey. But, it’s not. It’s in our bones—which is to say, it’s universal and it’s ancient. It’s what Buddha and Lao Tzu and Jesus and all the other true sages taught. (What distinguishes New Age “philosophies” from what’s true is the level of work. Most New Age stuff is about getting relaxed, taking it easy, whereas the real stuff is hard work.) A lot of people believe we can never really understand life—except through science maybe. But the older I get, the more I believe that this kind of understanding—a spiritual understanding, I mean—is possible. To attain it has to be the most rewarding and fulfilling thing one can do. It offers so much relief—relief from the nagging, painful puzzles that constantly wear us down. But the only way we can achieve this kind of understanding is by getting rid of the idea that having lots of money is a good thing. That’s going to be hard to do; but at some point, this way of life will go. It’s become so debilitating that it will collapse of its own accord. It’s harmful even to the rich. (No one really gains anything from being rich. And the rich man is never prepared to die. He finds the moment of death utterly terrifying.)

I know this will sound extreme to some people. But I also know that a lot of people who read me have similar views. The questions are always the same, though: What do we do about it? How do we change this system? And if we can change it, what do we replace it with? I hope to write about my own take on some of these questions in the not-too-distant future.

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14 Responses to “The Land of Unlimited Opportunity”

  1. Sarah Says:

    “No one really gains anything from being rich.”

    Eh, no; I disagree. As you know, by most (if not all) indicators, wealthy individuals generally enjoy longer lives and a better standard of living than do poor and middle class individuals.

    Our way of life will change only when the social engineers who control our lives and institutions decide that it will change – and if and when they do, they will determine the course and nature of that change.

    How to promote the common good? Here are some fantasies:

    1. Population reduction via peaceful means (read: conventional commercial birth control). Contraception could be heavily promoted around the world – perhaps via well-financed, well-organized, and far-reaching public-private social marketing campaigns that encourage every person to have one child or no children.

    2. A centralized cradle-to-grave social safety net (mainly, comprehensive national health care). People might reproduce less (or not at all) if they could rely upon national health care as a hedge against old age, disability, and sickness.

    3. A global social marketing campaign that would aim to encourage parents to raise empathic rather than narcissistic children.

    I realize that none of the above fantasies are likely to happen in most countries – especially not in societies that are too big to be true functioning democracies. To quote a comment that I think I recently read here, babies are future markets, future cheap labor, and future soldiers.

    • markbittner Says:

      Living longer and at a higher standard of living is not something I’ve ever longed for. It’s the quality of my life that matters to me, not its length. No matter what, we are all going to die. To spend a long boring life versus a shorter, more interesting one is not the choice we face. But if it was, I would have to choose the shorter, more interesting life. To me interesting means having the clarity of vision and the inner freedom to make strong moves without fear.

    • Sarah Says:

      Depends upon what you’d consider to be boring. I doubt the European royalty or American billionaires live what most people would consider to be boring lives. Their wealth not only brings them all of the physical comforts of life; their wealth grants them incredible access to otherwise inaccessible people – a diverse cross-section of artistic, creative, literary, scientific, and intellectual types. Most learning is conveyed socially rather than through books. Can you imagine how much your mind could grow if you had regular social interaction with the bright and creative minds of today?

      I’d take the so-called boring lives of the very rich over a life of poverty and uncertainty any time. Most of us aren’t swimming in wealth. For the few who are swimming in wealth, life is a power game. They’re dangerous and controlling and there’s not much most of us can do about that – other than to emigrate to more democratic and middle-class shores, if you can do so legally and safely.

      As a writer, could you live as a so-called retiree almost anywhere in the world, Mark?

    • markbittner Says:

      I do consider the lives of royalty and of billionaires boring. They can’t be anything but. Maybe they can buy access to knowledge and information, but they can’t buy access to wisdom or depth of vision, and that is what makes life worth living. I’ve only ever met one rich person who had any real depth, and this person was making a real effort to rise above “their” circumstances of birth.

      I’m not sure what you mean by the last sentence. I will never retire. I will be alive and struggling until the day I die.

  2. Kathy Says:

    now wait a minute. Longer lives and better standards of living are not IMHO what are being discussed here in the original post. Those criteria are statistical, numerical criteria by which we have been taught to evaluate our lives. I suggest we must learn from more ancient teachings, as are proposed in the original post, to establish or re-establish alternate criteria (if you will, these are intellectual and not intuitive statements) by which to evaluate the quality of life and through which to solve the natural human puzzlements we stumble across in the course of living daily lives. Which value system do we subscribe to? What values guide our living, our working out of personal concerns?

    Gregory Bateson called these problems “muddles”. He was fairly evocative in his arguments to invite the problem and in fact live in the problem, if you will, in my assessment, which I consider to be one of the better arguments to evolve from Western philosphy. See Rilke, if you will.

    Do we need more stuff than we need? How indeed are we defining wjhat it is exactly, that we need? A recent movie, Margin Call, attempts to address the hollowness of greed as well as the ingredients leading to the demise and destruction of an entire society through unforeseen domino effects. The only human element was the dog.

  3. David Says:

    There are lots of ways of being greedy that have nothig to do with money. If a person tries to improve the situation of their family, who is to be the judge who determines that one day they cross the line into some arbitrary zone of greed?

    Any resource can be abused, incuding physical strength, charisma or talent of any sort. The smart kid in math class who shows off for teacher instead of helping the other kids is being greedy. The brilliant conversationalist who leaves no space for others to speak is being greedy. Greed isn’t about acquiring resources like money or skill but about your methods and how you use the resources. My two cents — small amount.

    • markbittner Says:

      Well, yes. You can be greedy about lots of things. The energy in a room full of people, for example. But the subject was money. That’s why I defined it that way. But thanks for the two cents.

  4. JB Says:

    Thanks for the awesome post Mark. It’s come at the right time for me. Hit the nail on the head for what I’m gong through!

    • markbittner Says:

      I’m glad it was useful, Mr. Memes. I always feel some reluctance to put something out like that. I think that to most Americans, it sounds pretentious. We don’t want to be serious about anything. I love humor, but we need to learn to get comfortable with seriousness. Life is serious. We try to make it seem otherwise, but it is serious. Every now and then something frightening happens to remind us of the fact.

  5. dwdeclare (@TheVeganarchist) Says:

    i (everything seems to start with that) kind of like the old timothy leary axiom, drop out (don’t participate in what’s causing so much suffering and harm to other living beings and the environment), turn on (to a better, kinder, more reasonable and compassionate way to live), then tune back in (to share with others your experiences).

    “the older I get, the more I believe that this kind of understanding—a spiritual understanding, I mean—is possible”

    if we are to achieve any sort of spiritual understanding, the following two things would be at the top of my wishlist:

    1) wild nature. and to learn to live in balance with all the other plants and animals we share the biosphere with. which means: a) preserving clean air, clean water and clean soil for everyone, both human and nonhuman; and b) mostly just leaving other creatures be, unless they need our help, and respecting their right to exist.


    2) to have it be quieter. so we can contemplate and concentrate on what we need to do to increase well-being in the world and alleviate the harm we are causing. and perhaps begin to develop more of a sensitivity to the suffering of others…ALL others, including our nonhuman animal kin.

    unfortunately, both of these are becoming increasingly difficult to come by in a world of noisy, fossil fuel burning, polluting machines (run by people whose prime objective is unlimited economic growth) continuing to destroy both apace.

    • markbittner Says:

      I agree with everything you say here. The only thing I will add is that—and I’m going to go into this in greater detail soon—unlimited economic growth is an impossibility. (I’m guessing you agree.) The economic machine, which was built on that assumption, is breaking down now. Obama can’t fix it. And Romney certainly can’t fix it; he can only hasten its demise.

  6. Tim Mueller Says:

    Thank you, Mark. I’m going to have my high school kids write on this topic today. Many of them will be voting in November.

  7. Lori Hoeck (@LoriHoeck) Says:

    “America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who did hard work” means being able to dream, to drive toward a goal, to push the envelop, and to have a better chance here than anywhere else in the world to see risk and hard work turn into reward. It means following a passion for money or not, knowing the freedoms here make it more possible than in, say, Cuba or China. It means making a quirky film and helping birds if that’s what you want instead of being boxed into an arranged marriage or an arranged life by your parents or a caste system or a system of centralized planning. It means flying on the wings of freedom the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights afford us. It means being able to walk away from something–maybe even a life’s work–and start anew. It means believing in the future and dancing or pushing or gliding or flying into that future with a personality and set of beliefs that won’t be held against so much we are destined to fail. It means we find, create, or network to generate resources that seemed unavailable just a minute ago. It means choosing to embrace the positive and searching to turn weakness into strength. It means building, growing, and adding to the world. It means knowing that by tapping into Divine Providence, we discover there is no such thing as limitations.

    • markbittner Says:

      Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed [emphasis added], his life would dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.

      The I Ching.

      Forgive the male oriented language; I’m only quoting. But you can replace “a man” with “a person” and get the idea. I think this expresses a universal truth. No nation’s laws can override universal law. Our belief in “unlimited possibilities” is an American myth that we have to let go of if we’re ever to get on an even keel.

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