The role of the government has invited contentious politics in the United States as elsewhere. Rather than focusing on whether or not the government should do more, however, the debaters are more interested in undoing the existing social protections. This form of electoral politics is not surprising given the current context of bloated budget deficits and growing national debt. Yet, what is surprising is the historical success of the political right to convince the electorate that a non-interventionist, small government guarantees equality of opportunity through individual freedom. There is not so much of a political left in the United States, so to speak. But the political center-left has failed to carry forward the message of equality of opportunity along the lines of the New Deal.
In 1888, Alger’s fellow Massachusetts writer Edward Bellamy mounted a more serious challenge to the bootstraps ideal in his bestselling novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 — a trick title, since Bellamy was describing a possible future. The novel’s Rip Van Winkle-ish narrator is looking back on the 20th century from the vantage of the year 2000, after the United States has made a peaceful transition to a centrally planned, socialist society. Income is divided equally among citizens by means of what Bellamy called “credit cards,” each with the same value and limit.