The U.S. has lived up to its name as the land of opportunity, thanks to a variety of features. India has made great strides, but it has a long way to go to become one.

The United States is often referred to as the “Land of Opportunity.” While in college in India, I was unsure what it actually meant, but was fascinated by stories of people driving nice cars to work. Hollywood movies that showed skyscrapers, beautiful women in convertibles, and tidy roads hugging the Pacific Ocean added to the effect. Families showing off photographs of the flashy lifestyle of their relatives in the U.S. amplified it all. Wealth symbolised the land.

Those feelings have vanished after living for 21 years in the U.S. It is not about cars or palatial buildings. The land of opportunity conveys something deeper, and everything we see is an outcome. It is not the opportunity provided to immigrants — the legal ones or the illegal ones — to better their lives socially and economically with hard work, freedom, and dignity. It is much broader.

It is about equal opportunities, irrespective of socio-economic status, for people with ideas and the determination to succeed. The freedom to pursue their dreams is built into the societal DNA. The basic tenets of the capitalistic system are deeply ingrained in the thinking. Risk-taking is cherished and applauded, and sought out by employers. The family, the system of education, the social, political, and economic foundations, all reinforce such behaviours. Success is rewarded handsomely, while failures provide the knowledge to pursue the next idea. Failure is not a blemish to be ashamed of. Young minds enjoy the freedom to challenge the social and economic status quo; age or university degrees are irrelevant. That is why hundreds of teenage college dropouts (examples: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) in the U.S. have changed the way we interact or do business. Meanwhile, university research pushes the boundaries of knowledge. There is a culture of pursuing the unthinkable.

The rich individuals play a critical role. They give back wealth —sometimes all their wealth — as “investment” to the community for the greater good (examples: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett). They become “angel” investors to fund entrepreneurs to pursue promising ideas when the risks are the highest. Hundreds of universities and public and private idea incubators play a critical role in nurturing start-ups until they can fly on their own. There is somewhat of a Darwinian approach to this process, but there is no better approach. Only the ideas, drive, passion, and commitment matter.

While the capitalistic system drives the pursuit of excellence, there are low levels of Schadenfreude (or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) behaviour. The fruits of one's ideas and risk-taking in a capitalistic system are shared by others (but note that the reckless financial engineering of Wall Street violated this basic rule of capitalism since bankers gambled with others' money and did not own much risk). Schadenfreude economics, by contrast, suggests that some people do not mind losing $10 from their $100, but would rather see others lose much of their wealth. In the end both are worse off, but one takes pleasure from others being even worse off.

The foundation for the land of opportunity is the access to quality education irrespective of one's social or economic background. For centuries, various citizens and institutions have fought to create educational opportunities that were available only to the rich. The system of free public school education has its origins in the 19th century. Further, several Acts (examples: the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1980) triggered hundreds of State universities — referred to as land-grant colleges — that were established through gifts of federal land to the States to support higher education (my own university is one of them). While the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee education as a fundamental right, State courts have come down heavily on governments to provide equal opportunities for all. In the State of Texas, in response to a lawsuit, the higher court forced legislatures to seek new funding solutions to provide equal educational benefits irrespective of the location of a school. The rich neighbourhoods had greater property tax dollars to provide far superior educational opportunities than in the poorer school districts, which violated discrimination laws.

Of course, coloured people and women were denied equal rights for a long time. But Supreme Court rulings on segregation and women's rights (example: Title IX of 1972) forced racial and gender equity in education. The courts played a critical role in this effort.

The universities, the culture of research, angel investors, venture capital, bankruptcy laws, economic freedom, hiring practices, institutional safeguards, infrastructure, safety net, education flexibility, public policy, respect for law, and so on, matter in creating opportunities. Corruption exists but it does not affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens.

India as a land of opportunity

Many people now call India a land of opportunity, following the country's recent level of economic growth. In casual conversations they point to the jazzy buildings, the malls, the successful global firms, and homes that cost even a billion dollars. But that argument is misconstrued. India can really be a land of opportunity only when the educational quality of the rich and the poor converge, and when every child from any socio-economic background has equal opportunities to compete and succeed. The system should allow anyone with ideas to pursue them fearlessly. The system at home, in the schools, and at the workplace should move away from obedience as a trait greater than inquisitiveness. Age should not be equated with wisdom. India has made great strides, but it still has a long way to go to become a land of opportunity.

By means of the Right to Education Act, India has now made education a fundamental right for all children. However, it may remain just a feel-good Act with no real guarantees or consequences. There may be school buildings but no teachers. When there are teachers they may not be qualified. There may be computers but no power. There may be mid-day meals, but no text books, toilets, or water. Will the courts take governments and bureaucrats to task for failing to provide equal rights in all aspects? The truth is in honest implementation.

Schadenfreude behaviour is rampant. Many Indians ask jokingly, “why are Indian crabs shipped in open containers?” The argument is that if one crab tries to escape other crabs will pull it down. Thus, all crabs remain trapped in the open container (that is, poverty). Some try hard to pull others down. The extent of such behaviour is worrisome and has severe consequences in public life. Political parties go to any extent to pull the other party down. Every meaningful development is brought down even if that makes everyone worse-off. Politicians serve themselves at the expense of others. Some social leaders like to maintain the status quo in order to make themselves relevant to the have-nots. Class-envy creeps in and even the wealthy that succeeded through hard work and human ingenuity is attacked mercilessly. We ignore the question of whether such ingenuity leads to a better life for others.

Simultaneously, many rich Indians are busy showcasing their wealth rather than focussing on the greater good. Social leaders ignore the benefits of development. I met a leader who was angry at the rich, assuming that they wanted nice airports and roads to drive their luxury cars. However, he failed to recognise that such spending leads to the creation of thousands of jobs and opportunities for the most needy. The class warfare, and the net outcome of that behaviour, will lead to Schadenfreude outcomes. Of course, no one should condone those who engage in corrupt, unethical, and immoral practices to accumulate wealth.

India is a land of contradictions where wealth is juxtaposed with abject poverty; excellence is embedded within inefficiencies and rampant corruption; and the first world infrastructure of leading firms is closeted within pathetic public infrastructure.

However, just like India, the U.S. is also a land of contradictions. For instance, despite the separation of church and state, religion appears to decide who will be the next President of the U.S., or the Governor of a State. Despite all the tensions, India, on the contrary, has elected Prime Ministers and Presidents from minority religions. However, the question is whether opportunities dominate contradictions. In the U.S. it certainly does. We have to wait and see if that happens in India soon enough to have an impact over a billion people.

(Prabhudev Konana is William H. Seay Centennial Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted at pkonana@mail.utexas.edu)

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