RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — The conventional wisdom is that immigrants come to America to get rich. This notion is conveyed endlessly in the "rags to riches" literature on immigrants, and it is reinforced by America's critics, who like to think of the United States as buying the affection of immigrants through the promise of making them filthy rich.
But this Horatio Alger narrative is woefully incomplete; indeed, it misses the real attraction of America to immigrants, and to people around the world.
There is enough truth in the conventional account to give it a surface plausibility.
Certainly America offers a degree of mobility and opportunity unavailable elsewhere, even in Europe. Only in the US could Pierre Omidyar, whose ancestry is Iranian and who grew up in France, have started a company like eBay. Only in the US could Vinod Khosla, the son of an Indian Army officer, become a shaper of the technology industry and a billionaire to boot.
In addition to providing unprecedented social mobility and opportunity, America gives a better life to the ordinary guy than does any other country. Let's be honest: Rich people live well everywhere. America's greatness is that it has extended the benefits of affluence, traditionally available to the very few, to a large segment of society. We live in a nation where "poor" people have TV sets and microwave ovens, where construction workers cheerfully spend $4 on a nonfat latte, where maids drive very nice cars, where plumbers take their families on vacation to St. Kitts.
Recently I asked an acquaintance in Bombay why he has been trying so hard to relocate to America. He replied, "I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat."
The typical immigrant, who is used to the dilapidated infrastructure, mind-numbing inefficiency, and multilayered corruption of third-world countries, arrives in the US to discover, to his wonder and delight, that everything works: Roads are clean and paper-smooth, highway signs clear and accurate; public toilets function properly; when you pick up the telephone you get a dial tone; you can even buy things from the store and then take them back.
The American supermarket is a thing to behold: endless aisles of every imaginable product, many types of cereal, 50 flavors of ice cream. The place is full of unappreciated inventions: quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, cordless phones, disposable diapers, and roll-on luggage.
So, yes, in material terms, America offers the newcomer a better life. Still, the material allure of America does not capture the deepest source of its appeal.
Recently I asked myself how my life would have been different if I had not come to America. I was raised in a middle-class family in India. I didn't have luxuries, but I didn't lack necessities. Materially, my life is better in the US, but it is not a fundamental difference. My life has changed far more dramatically in other ways.
Had I remained in India, I would probably live my entire existence within a five-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have married a woman of my identical religious and socioeconomic background, possibly someone selected by my parents. I would face relentless pressure to become an engineer or a doctor. My socialization would have been entirely within my own ethnic community. I would have a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance. In sum, my destiny would, to a large degree, have been given to me.
By coming to America, I've seen my life freed of these confines. At Dartmouth College, I became interested in literature and switched my major to the humanities. Soon, I developed a fascination with politics, and resolved to become a writer, which is something you can do in America, and which is not easy to do in India. I married a woman of English, Scots-Irish, French, and German ancestry. Eventually, I found myself working in the White House, even though I wasn't an American citizen. I can't imagine any other country allowing a noncitizen to work in its inner citadel of government.
In most of the world, even today, identity and fate are largely handed to you. This is not to say that you have no choice, but it is choice within given parameters. In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life. What to be, where to live, whom to love, whom to marry, what to believe, what religion to practice - these are all decisions that, in America, we make for ourselves. Here, we're architects of our own destiny.
"Self determination" is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of the US. Young people throughout the world find irresistible the prospect of being in the driver's seat of their own lives. So, too, the immigrant discovers that America permits him to break free of the constraints that have held him captive, so that the future becomes a landscape of his own choosing.
The phrase that captures this unique aspect of America is the "pursuit of happiness."
Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul analyzes that concept this way: "It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away."
• Dinesh D'Souza is the author of 'What's So Great About America.' He is the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.