Universal Studios Hollywood is introducing the “V.I.P Experience”: a special ticket that, among other things, allows purchasers to jump the queue for its various attractions. No more standing on line (as we New Yorkers say) if you pay an extra $299.
When I read news like this, a bitter bile rises in my throat — the kind usually reserved for when I watch business class travelers zip through the express line reserved for them at airport security.
But even as I choke, I have to ask myself why should I, a defender of free markets and private property, be so outraged by these particular examples of market pricing?
As a strict constitutionalist, I do not deny Universal’s right to sell the pass (although the jailhouse lawyer in me questions the airlines’ right to co-opt a public agency, the TSA, in its discriminatory practice against coach fliers). But, even if they have the right, what they are doing is wrong.
Americans live and put up with wide-ranging and diverse forms of inequality. We accept that the rich drive better cars, own posh summer homes and monopolize the good seats at Fenway. But it is precisely because we are so tolerant of so many inequalities that some important life experiences must continue to be shared. For, if the reality of a shared existence wanes, the commitment to such an ideal will also wane.
The common American experience is disappearing. The single most important loss was President Richard Nixon’s elimination of selective service in 1973. A nation shows its commitment to shared experience when both rich and non-rich must risk their lives to defend their country.
A new threat, all the more insidious because it is promoted as a democratic boon, is Oregon’s decision to let voters vote online. If this idea catches on, we will lose one of the few remaining activities that people from all walks of life do elbow-to-elbow. Instead of rubbing up against their fellow citizens at the polls and perhaps even exchanging friendly greetings, voting will be yet another thing we do in the privacy of our own homes.
Indeed, V.I.P. passes to amusement parks and express lines for business class travelers are trivial matters compared to the end of the military draft. Nonetheless, they provoke outrage because they are too visible to ignore. It is easy to let your mind wander away from the disgrace of depending on hired hands to defend your country. But if one is standing on line for “Jurassic Park: The Ride,” deriving some solace from knowing that those in front of you all patiently waited their turn, it is aggravating and demeaning to watch latecomers just saunter in because they have $300 to burn.
As the common life becomes increasingly obsolete, what becomes of us? Do we turn into a modern version of pre-revolutionary Europe, in which the rich flaunt their wealth and privilege while the rest of us grimace and bear it? Or, do we devolve into a version of modern European social democracy in which the non-rich look to government to attack privilege and end up with a state that privileges itself? The American ability to steer a course that avoids domination by the rich — or by the state — stems from a careful balance of individual determination and national solidarity.
It is sadly ironic that this latest threat to the common American experience should come from a company that calls itself “Universal.” Let it live up to its name and refrain from its shameful attempt to further divide the American people.