It's frequently said that the United States is a young country, but
with 150 years of colonial history plus 225 years since the Declaration
of Independence, we are starting to accumulate some serious history.
Though we still tend to look forward rather than back, we have a lot
to learn from our past, especially in light of the New Economy giddiness
of the past few years.
The New Economy was a utopian vision that promised us unfettered
growth. Now, with a sluggish economy and the dot.com collapse, this
notion seems naive and quaint. But the tendency of ours--to announce that
utopia is just around the corner and then despair when it isn't--has been
repeated for centuries.
In fact, the New Economy is simply the latest of a series of utopian
dreams that have defined American society since the beginning.
The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts believed that they were
destined, in the words of Gov. John Winthrop, to establish a brave new
"For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes
of all people are upon us," he wrote during the colony's first months.
The Puritans succeeded in creating a viable community, but their more
grandiose dreams of a City on a Hill went unfulfilled.
Disillusioned, the colonists of the 18th century rejected the Puritan
vision and invented a new one.
The leaders of the American Revolution believed that if the colonies
were free from England, energy would be released in an explosion of
individualism and freedom, and that the new "United States" would be more
dynamic and prosperous than any country had ever been.
But in the 1780s, leading Americans turned against that vision of the
American Revolution. Individualism and freedom, which had been embraced
as panaceas in 1776, were viewed as misguided ideas by many of the
founding fathers who assembled to draft the Constitution in 1787.
Instead, they articulated a new vision, of a union that would bind
Americans together in a republic and lead to individual happiness and
This pattern of visions rising and falling continued in the 20th
century. The New Economy was the successor to an expansive vision of
government that crested with the Great Society. In the 1960s, government
was going to lead us to the promised land of universal affluence and
When that didn't happen, government came under attack, and people
became bitter and disillusioned. Finally, the faith in government was
supplanted in the 1990s by faith in the New Economy.
Now, it appears that the same cycle has undermined the vision du
jour . The New Economy did generate immense wealth, but only for a
few. Yes, it also transformed communications and led to an explosion of
information and access that is still changing the way we conduct our
But it had its limits.
Critics of the New Economy are in the process of formulating a new
paradigm: A vision for a world that values community and connectedness
more than megabytes and stock prices. You can see this everywhere, from
the protesters against globalization to evangelical Christians and fans
of Oprah Winfrey.
We now have an opportunity to stop perpetuating this cycle.
Time and again, we lurch from one vision to the next rather than
taking the best elements from each. Rather than jettisoning the New
Economy in a will-o'-the-wisp search for another magic formula, we ought
to treasure what it does well.
Instead of giving up on the promise, we ought to temper it with other
strategies, other visions.
Religion, individualism, national unity, the New Economy, all add to
the richness of American culture. Rather than denigrating what doesn't
work, we have an opportunity to shift our attitudes and focus on what
We may never be fully satisfied, but if we make this adjustment, we
might come closer to fulfilling our dreams.
Zachary Karabell is the author of "A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead" (Harpercollins, 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times