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The American Dream: Freedom in Decision Making

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Candi Choi 
July 18, 2019

With the recent prevalence of the Hamilton Broadway show, a light has been shined on a major contributor to the Constitution. Most importantly about Alexander Hamilton is that he appreciated capitalism. He endorsed banking corporations, and considered them, “The happiest engines that ever were invented for advancing trade,” with a, “Powerful tendency to extend the active capital of a country.” He appreciated commercialism. Dissenting from his view, other Founders believed the nation’s, “Political evils may be traced to our commercial ones.” Today, many see Hamilton as an example of the American Dream.

America has a cultural history of revolutionary goals that consider all men equal and among their blessings endowed upon them by their Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—a prosperity to be protected by the government. Based on that doctrine, the American Dream is simple and plainly speaking freedom for the people to decide how they attain it. The Constitution itself was made to assist people along their journey to posterity by unifying the means of justice, common defense, welfare, tranquility and liberty. The Founders considered mankind capable in their freedom to decide their own prosperity and made a commitment of a unified government in order to better protect it.

Today, when we consider the American Dream, prosperity often appears to be dependent upon materialist goals often determined by elected officials, corporations, social entitlements, wealth, and the market. Many have considered the American Dream to be a life full of opportunity for everyone based upon their ability or achievement. Others, like Mark Robert Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl and Kirk A. Foster, in Chasing the American Dream say it’s freedom to pursue one’s own interests and passions. The American Dream is commonly defined by the attainment of things; a home, an improved standard of living and college education. Thus, there are numerous perspectives on the subject.

South Korea plans to attain prosperity and posterity through fiscal management choices and education, but primarily education. According to their 2017 research, Education Policy in South Korea: A Contemporary Model of Human Capital Accumulation, Patrik Hutlberg, et al found that 98 percent of 25-34 year olds in Korea graduated high school. Families invest in private schooling, tutors and tertiary education. The outcomes are shown through their adult educational attainment for 25-34 year olds which is 22 percent more than the United States and the most education among nations participating in OECD studies. Korea also attained a 9th ranking in OECD studies for Reading and 8th for Math, whereas, the United States ranks at 18th for Reading and 36th for Math.

Middle-income families in Korea find education so important to attaining success and mobility, they invest most of their wealth into private tutoring and schooling. Instead of reactively changing the dynamics of their family activity (i.e. transitioning into a two worker household), they meet the financial demands of their dream by, “limiting the size of their family.” Ultimately, families are better able to manage their finances and invest in the competitive education market for their child—albeit, at the cost of a seemingly lower national fertility rate. Thus, Koreans are united around the market, which is considered when determining their choices. An issue that has shown to be inefficient because the attainment of success and mobility is more competitive based on the capacity of human capital.

Education helps in attaining any dream. It is worth asking whether spending and choices line up with the intended goals. According to OECD statistics, private spending on tertiary education in the United States is 1.67 percent of GDP. Whereas, Korea’s private spending for tertiary is at 1.16 percent of GDP. United States Private spending on primary to post-secondary education is 31 percent of GDP. Korea’s private spending for primary to post-secondary education is 51 percent of their GDP.  United States public spending on education is 3.2 percent of GDP and spending on tertiary education is .09 percent of GDP. Comparatively, Korea has similar public spending on primary to post-primary and tertiary education to the United States. The difference is in the supplemental education that Korea invests out of pocket. Since the education is privately funded, the choice and quality of education is determined by the citizens. Therefore, better educational attainment and rankings are found among private supplemental investments into a student’s education. 

In Korea, middle-income families make daily decisions to adhere to educational attainment as the most important factor to achieving their dream. They’ve effectively invested in favorable services by making personal decisions around them. Rational decision-making suggests that people consider choices based on reasoned outcomes, in terms of their circumstances. Korean decisions produce favorable educational attainment outcomes correlated directly to their investments. Wealth hasn’t shown significant results because the demand for prestigious education and consequently highly competitive careers. The inefficiency occurs where the perceived goal of a competitive career is attained by an excessive investment in one demanding factor (i.e. education).    

Only one question remains. How are Americans attaining the American Dream? The Founders intended prosperity and posterity to be more than simply rights of material conditions and wealth. But, is it? The Founders established a union between government’s constitutional responsibility and individual citizen responsibility; a functional society. Perhaps it’s time for each party to uphold their part of the union and preserve capital resources through the freedom of daily decision making.


Author: Candi Choi holds an MPA with specialization in local government management. She has experience with local budgeting, planning and constituent affairs. Her contact email is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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