Op-eds | October 01, 2012
Elite’s lectures on free lunches often spiced with hypocrisy
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s a common enough slogan. You may have heard it today — perhaps even over lunch.
And it’s a nice slogan as slogans go. It carries with it an aura of responsibility, if not respectability.
Free-lunch ideology is the new Protestant Ethic, an homage to hard work. To quote another slogan, “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” No cheating, no shuffling off debts to others. People, it is argued, should pay the total cost for everything they use, full stop.
Sounds good on the surface — but further reflection reveals a problematic distortion of reality. There are instances when individuals cannot afford the full cost of a service. Yet, as a society, we want them to have access to it anyway, so we collectively subsidize it.
Health care is one example. Most people could not afford the actual costs of health care. Would we really want people with a contagious disease to not seek immediate treatment because they couldn’t pay for treatment? Would we really want families to go into bankruptcy because a member faced catastrophic illness?
As is often the case in the United States, both these scenarios lead to additional, greater costs for the individuals and for society at large.
But we need not stop with health care. Would anyone seriously want to leave youth — the workers of tomorrow, as we are often told — without an education, the system catering only to the well heeled?
Transportation provides another example. Take Mexico City. It has perhaps 30 million people. (No one really knows: the government gave up counting some years ago.)
Many of Mexico City’s inhabitants are very poor and could not afford either a car or the “real” price of using the subway. On top of this, the city also faces severe environmental problems from traffic congestion. How to enable the poor to get around the city? How also to entice people to leave their vehicles at home?
The answer: subsidize the costs of riding. It costs three pesos, or about 24 cents US, to ride the city’s subway system, but some people (the elderly, the physically impaired, and young children) ride for free. As a result, nearly four million people ride Mexico City’s subway every day. Without subsidies, the city would not function.
We have similar examples of this closer to home. The City of Edmonton subsidizes Eskimo ticket holders by making free the costs of taking public transit to every home game. The city does so because it wants to encourage the 35,000 fans who attend each game to leave their cars at home.
As a result, homeowners near Commonwealth Stadium are saved aggravation, traffic enforcement officials are not obliged to ticket the many fans who would otherwise end up parked illegally, and we all reap the environmental benefits of reduced vehicular traffic.
The curious thing about these free lunch admonitions, however, is that those most prone to making them are often those least likely to live by the basic principle.
For example, Mitt Romney, the U.S. Republican party’s candidate in November’s election, often hectors people about free lunches. Recently, he was caught on tape while at a fundraising banquet for millionaires lambasting nearly half of the American population (including seniors) for not paying taxes and still feeling entitled to such things as health care and housing.
But, as many critics have pointed out, the wealthy Romney himself has eaten his way through a lot of free lunches, principally in the form of tax breaks and shelters. Indeed, his financial beltline veritably bulges with excess, the result of a surfeit of lunches for which he has not sufficiently paid.
Of course, Romney is not alone in this. Canada also has a bevy of conservative politicians and business tycoons who never fail to seize the opportunity to lecture the common folk for being lazy and spoiled.
In the minds of these elite narcissists, they are entitled to give said lectures because they are all self-made Masters of the Universe. For them, their success is entirely of their own making. They see themselves as the true Creators, the rest of us merely instruments for the fulfilment of their great plan. And, thus, they are entitled to gorge themselves with everything they see and can buy (or steal).
Elitists are as old as the planet. Marie Antoinette, a particularly prominent member of that group, once famously remarked that France’s starving underclass should eat cake. Were she alive today, she would undoubtedly insist they pay up first.
But, then again, it didn’t end so well for Marie.
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