The wealthy and their GOP apologists talk about poor people as the takers. They have it completely backward.
June 24, 2015
Photo Credit: Volt Collection/Shutterstock.com
Rich people rarely tell you how they really feel about poor people.
Occasionally, though, you get a glimpse. Earlier this week, the
Washington Post published a story
Rancho Santa Fe, a small but extremely wealthy enclave in Southern
California. Like the rest of California, the people of Rancho Santa Fe
are dealing with a drought. As you might imagine, that means water is
scarce and conservation is critical. For the denizens of Rancho Santa
Fe, however, conservation is someone else’s problem, namely poor people.
to Steve Yuhas, who lives in the area and hosts a conservative
talk-radio show, privileged people “should not be forced to live on
property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for
wanting their gardens to be beautiful.” Oh, the humanity! In case it
wasn’t clear, Yuhas added that the right to water ought to scale with
income: “No, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”
isn’t alone. Gay Butler, an avid equestrian and fellow resident of
Rancho Santa Fe, fumed for similar reasons. “It angers me because people
aren’t looking at the overall picture,” she said. “What are we supposed
to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?” Perhaps Butler
has a point. It’s one thing to demand sacrifice in extraordinary
circumstances, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere, right? If a
woman wants to ride her finely manicured horse on a dirt-free prairie in
the middle of the desert, what matters a little drought?
Barbre, a fellow Orange Country aristocrat, also appears to get it. “I
call it the war on suburbia,” he remarked. “California used to be the
land of opportunity and freedom. It’s slowly becoming the land of one
group telling everyone else how they think everybody should live their
lives.” Barbre continued: “They’ll have to pry it [his water hose] from
my cold, dead hands.”
You may be asking yourself: Do restrictions
on water consumption during a historic drought really constitute an
all-out assault on human freedom? Fair question. Most of us fail to see
this issue in such grand terms. Maybe we’re missing something. Mr.
Barbre is either a bold lover of liberty or a detached plutocrat with a
penchant for hyperbole. You be the judge.
In any case, I see the
decadence of the people in Rancho Santa Fe as a microcosm of America
today, particularly corporate America. What these people exhibit, apart
from their smugness, is a complete absence of any sense of collective
responsibility. They can’t see and aren’t interested in the consequences
of their actions. And they can’t muster a modicum of moderation in the
face of enormous scarcity. Every resource, every privilege, is theirs to
pilfer with impunity. These people are prepared to endanger an entire
ecosystem simply to avoid the indignity of brown golf courses; this is
what true entitlement looks like.
The wealthiest Americans – and
their apostles in government – tell us that it’s the poor people who are
entitled, who take and exploit and keep more than they deserve. But
that’s a half-truth, and a dangerous one at that. Entitlement has many
faces, the most destructive of which is on display in Rancho Santa Fe.
These adolescent upper-crusters are entitled because they believe they
have a right to everything they can get hold of – regardless of the
costs. They believe living with others carries no obligations. Anyone
who places their right to pristine golf courses above their
responsibility to respect communal resources is a social toxin, a
privileged parasite eating away at the foundations of society. It’s
important that their actions be seen in this context.
lesson in Rancho Santa Fe and in California more generally. What’s
happening there foreshadows our future. We’re confronted with crises on a
number of fronts. From climate change to economic inequality, our
institutions – and the people controlling them – are failing us. Changes
are necessary, but a segment of society (the 1 percent, we’ll call
them) is unwilling to sacrifice; they’re too invested in power, in
comfort. Whether it’s oil profiteers distorting climate science
or Wall Street banks undermining efforts
regulate the financial industry, entrenched interests are doing
everything possible to preserve the status quo, even when so doing
threatens to upend the whole system – just like the people of Rancho
The corrosive elitism in Rancho Santa Fe is the stuff
popular revolts are based on. These Dickensian vultures want to hoard
until nothing remains; they’re blind to those beyond their gated
communities. Disconnectedness is a close cousin of privilege, so it’s
not surprising that they live in a bubble. But their persecution mania,
their belief in their privileged status, is insufferable – and a public
hazard. They can’t imagine what it’s like to live without, so they’ll
risk anything to ensure that they don’t. California may survive the
selfish stupidity of a few citizens in Rancho Santa Fe, but it’s not
clear how long the country can survive the excesses and greed of Wall
Street and Big Business.
Wealth, it’s worth noting, isn’t the
enemy. The problem is the attitude of the wealthy, the contempt, the
indifference, and the lack of anything resembling civic virtue. To be
rich is no crime. To abuse privilege, to profit at the expense of
others, is quite another thing – and it’s all too common these days.
Sean Illing teaches political theory at Louisiana State University. Read more on his blog and follow him on Twitter.
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