What Built America – Opportunity

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Imagine living in a country and then deciding to leave it for a new one. What would motivate a person to travel for weeks by horse and then sea—thousands of miles—to a land they had never been to, never seen a picture of, but merely heard stories about? What was in our ancestors’ vision of this new land called America that gave up all they knew to come to it?

I imagine one part is it was… A land of opportunity, personal opportunity.

You could begin your own business in a city. Worship your God without religious structure and dogma. Farm open land out west in the plains and raise a family. You could head even further west to seek gold and fortune. There were as many dreams as there were dreamers.

I am beginning a series on TFM called “WHAT BUILT AMERICA.” I want to explore the values of the past in hopes it will inspire all of us to rediscover and apply them for today.

While many people immigrated to America seeking opportunity, the majority didn’t leave. They stayed in Europe. They continued living under the political and religious systems that persecuted them and limited their freedoms. How is it going for their descendants? Well, no need for much commentary there.

It was America where those who thought they had a better opportunity were heading to leave the old behind… for religious, political, and financial opportunity. It was the spirit of these folks that formed a new government and new way of living. They based this life on freedom and liberty of course, but even more so on that simple, perfect line Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.

Listening to Obama address Congress the other day, I thought of those people. He was talking about a “fair chance” for folks, rhetoric about the middle class losing its place in our country. He laid out his vision of how he will level the playing field, create fair rules and regulations, provide government assistance, start new programs, re-distribute the fair share, and more taxation to certain privileged classes to make things better for average folks.

Summed up: “The government will help create this opportunity for you.”

When did we turn from a country that relied on our own personal efforts to one that relied on our government for this help? Our ancestors had no safety nets. There were few rules. There was no healthcare plan. Retirement? Sorry. And they weren’t waiting on speeches from politicians. They were creating it as they went.

You could die in the Rockies passing through to California from an early winter storm. You might fail at your business and have no food for your family. While these and many other risks abounded, the opportunity for freedom and personal reward trumped the dangers. Over and over people chose freedom and risk with this personal initiative for themselves and their family. They were flocking to their own chance. They had seen what a government could do to personal freedoms. They were escaping it.

I think it’s human nature to fall into the trap of seeking comfort over finding courage. Safety trumps risk. Handouts and assistance often seem preferable over any personal initiatives. But as humans, and as men, it is our job to realize that our Nation, our communities, and our families must see that is not the best path. The life we want has to be fought for.

When the government is put in the position to bring fairness, it also gives it all kinds of control. Once they have that power, that control can move in many directions. As a society, we risk falling into the trap of becoming dependent on those entitlements.

If no one votes for the hard choices anymore, preferring to take the easy way out, then our democracy may crumble before us. The motivated citizens are replaced with people who want fairness because they lack the motivation to level the playing field on their own.

We need to get back to seeking personal opportunity. That is what America is about. We stand on the shoulders of the men of our past who lived true to this ideal. Your great great someone and mine.

Personal initiative is part of what built America. The freedom to create and build and grow and explore without much interference is what made it great. I think what strengthened the resolve of our ancestors to launch out on their own, was accepting that life was hard and not always fair. They believed that courage was a greater goal than handouts and comforts. They were willing to accept the arduous task of working hard. It wasn’t a guarantee or an entitlement, it was a choice that they made to seek it.

This is how many of the folks who came to America began. We need to go out and kick ass to show it’s still true. So, let’s seek a life of personal freedoms and opportunity by living that out today. It is one aspect of the dream that built America. What can sustain it? The hard work of dreamers like you and me.

By guest columnist Xan Hood, CEO/Founder of Buffalo & Company / Buffalo Jackson

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