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Certainly, Universal Studios has the right to offer visitors a “V.I.P Experience.” But, says Marc Landy, that doesn’t mean they should. In this undated image, riders exit the "Transformers the Ride: 3D," attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles. (Universal Studios Hollywood/AP)

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?

It is sadly ironic that this latest threat to the common American experience should come from a company that calls itself “Universal.”

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.

If the reality of a shared existence wanes, the commitment to such an ideal will also wane.

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.

Tags: History, Law

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  • Jasoturner

    The lower classes need to become acclimated to the slights they will endure as the wealth of the country continues to get shifted to the elite. I imagine many everyday events – waiting for a plane or a train, waiting to pay for clothes or groceries, waiting to enter a show or performance, waiting to get access to a doctor or politician – will become more and more overtly class driven, with the wealthy not having to endure the small indignities of everyday life. And of course, their ease comes at the expense of the lower classes, who will wait all the longer for their turn.

  • cc345

    Out of curiosity, I looked it up. The VIP ticket seems to come with a tour guide and the same “Express” access that regular people can purchase (minus the tour guide) for about $30 additional per day. (Express access skips the regular lines, but not all lines.) Perhaps it’s not as discriminatory as it sounds in the piece.

    • Asti

      The express pass is actually about $65 extra dollars per day. This is still a huge price hike; I think the point of the article stands.

  • Greg B

    This piece reminds me of an NYT article from a few months back by Adam Liptak discussing the increasingly common practice of paying “line standers” to ensure one’s access to oral arguments at the Supreme Court. A link for those interested: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/us/supreme-court-spectator-line-acts-as-a-toll-booth.html

  • northeaster17

    I for one stay away from places that require one to stand in line for mulitiple periods of time for so called entertainment. What a waste of time and money.

  • idler

    analogy to online voting flawed ?

    surely online voting makes it possible for many presently excluded from voting because of age, infirmity, just having to work for a living, or other vicissitudes, to be able to vote. Inclusive rather than exclusive I’d say .
    As for the loss of elbow to elbow contact ; rarely happens, rarely satisfying.

  • Roy Tucker

    Yes, far better to confine the impact of economic inequality to less important and less obvious matters like mortality and life expectancy.

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