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 about 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.
According 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.”
And Yuhas 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?
Brett 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.
There’s a 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 to 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 Santa Fe.
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.