All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 1986

The Golden Age of Opportunity

Gregory Rehmke is Director of Seminars at FEE.

It was a golden age of opportunity—a time when adversity coupled with a free economy generated a surge of human energy, productivity, and progress. Impoverished men, women, and children flowed into America by the millions, driven from their aristocratic homelands and tightly planned societies. Isaac Asimov, the well-known science and science fiction author, writes of his early days Of opportunity and hard work in New York City in a recent advertisement sponsored by Panhandle Eastern Corporation:

“Everyone faces adversity from time to time. It’s a natural part of life. By itself, it’s neither good, nor bad. The important thing is how we deal with it and what we learn from it . . .

“Very early in life, poverty forced me to become quick, resourceful, and imaginative. It also forced me to accept jobs I really didn’t want but which helped me grow.”

Asimov’s family came from Russia during the early 1920s when Isaac was three. Which of his ancestors ever glimpsed opportunities such as America offered the young Isaac? Which of them even dreamed of being anything but a peasant—without secure property, without rights, without hope for a better life?

It wasn’t the adversity that was unusual for this new-generation Asimov—it was the freedom, by hard work and ingenuity, to throw off the poverty into which he was born. And Isaac Asimov became a whirlwind of action and energy. He began writing when he was eleven, and was earning money from his writings by the time he was eighteen.

But he wasn’t making enough money to support himself, so he began teaching. He had no special credentials to teach, but in that day diplomas and certification were unnecessary. He was required only to know the course he was to teach—biochemistry—so he systematically mastered the subject, keeping just clays ahead of his lectures. Within two years he was contributing to a textbook on biochemistry.

Where are such opportunities now’? Where is the freedom for today’s victims of foreign tyrannies to bring their energy and genius to America? Where is the freedom to move from place to place and job to job? And what has become of the motive force of adversity?

Poverty no longer forces one “to become quick, resourceful, and imaginative.” Instead, modern poverty gives one special priorities. The certified poor can qualify for state housing, food stamps, free medical care, and other forms of aid to keep them off the streets and out of the newspapers. The energies of today’s poor concentrate on the rules and regulations which govern those who receive the dole: standing in welfare lines in grim buildings at an appointed time, waiting long hours in other lines for ten pounds of “free” cheese, hiding any unapproved earnings, living furtively under the watchful eyes of the welfare spies, rehearsing pleas of need and adversity for steely-eyed bureaucrats.

One might argue that Asimov is unusual, that his innate skills are rare. That is probably true. But there are millions of other people who worked their way into the middle classes before the welfare traps were laid and legal barriers erected.

Today, many entry level jobs in manufacturing, construction, and other fields are no longer open to the poor. They are reserved for workers with the proper union cards. These jobs often pass from father to son and uncle to nephew. For many high paying union and government jobs you need to know someone, maybe a relative or a friend with political connections. But the poor know only each other.

At the same time, minimum wages and licensing restrictions keep many jobs above the reach of the unskilled- -condemning many to remain ever unskilled, ever underqualified, ever poor. The creative and productive energies of the poor are splintered by the subtle barriers to entry quietly guarding hundreds of enterprises that had drawn in and transformed previous generations.

The golden age of opportunity for the poor has faded. Endless regulations lock away entry-level jobs at the same time as welfare payments seduce the poor into lives of hopelessness and despair. With no means to “create themselves” through productive work, and no way to understand why, they mull over the injustice of their world. The remaining currents of energy born of today’s adversity are often channeled into • gang warfare or playground sports or are dissolved with drags.

How can we reanimate the stagnant world of today’s poor?. Rumblings are already being heard among liberals and conservatives alike. The vast scale of welfare state failures is mind-numbing to the traditional reformers. So reforms are being offered from without. More and more people, over the next few years, will consider the possibility that involuntary philanthropy does not work and that coercive regulations passed in the name of the “public good” merely guard the private good—protecting moneyed and privileged special interests from competition.

To even think that coerced (tax-supported) charity can help the poor is to accept a subtle form of slavery as just and workable. The issue of justice is perhaps buried too deep for the pragmatic politician, journalist, or layman to unearth. But the companion issue of workability is rising to the surface. Coercive programs just cannot be grafted onto the voluntary institutions of a free society. Such graftings quickly infect the institutions to which they are attached, as private philanthropy has been sullied by its bigger tax-supported companion.

Everything about Isaac Asimov’s story has stamped on it “only in America.” We should be proud of our country and the principles for which it stands. It was these principles—private property, free markets, and the Rule of Law—that unleashed “an unprecedented fury of human energy, attacking the non-human world, and making this earth more habitable for human beings.” (Rose Wilder Lane, The Discovery of Freedom, p. viii) Millions of the world’s poor were drawn into this vortex of productive activity, earning their way out of poverty as they provided goods and services which in turn improved the lot of their fellow man.

If we have any duties to the poor of the world and to the poor here in America, surely they include prying open the doors of opportunity, and restoring the free and open economy we inherited from our parents, and which should be the birthright of our children.