Why you can’t buy a first class ticket to Utopia

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_411 Nov. 23 14.03Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, “premier” and “regular.” To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over “regulars” for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.

The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.

Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.

My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.

Adopting the scientific attitude of an anthropologist set down amidst an alien tribe, I took careful note of all the privileges my exalted status conferred. For the uninitiated I hereby divulge the mysteries: priority boarding; a personalized greeting from the flight attendant; plusher seats wide enough to accommodate the fattest of cats; an extra foot of leg room; a pre-flight drink; a bowl of heated nuts shortly after takeoff; a heated chocolate chip cookie for dessert; and a hot wet washcloth with which to swab one's after-dinner face.

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The extra room was pleasant. But what struck me most about the rest of the privileges was that they are essentially symbolic. They don't materially improve the experience; they just serve to remind you that you're in first class. This is presumably the purpose of heating the nuts, cookie and washcloth: to differentiate what you're getting from the pre-packed nuts, cookie, and scented towelette that the plebs in standard have to put up with. After all, if nuts are really so much nicer hot, why don't we eat them that way at home?

Obviously, the symbolic privileges are part of the airline's strategy to convince those who can afford it that first class is worth the price. Assuming that the market strategists know their business, the implications are depressing, although hardly surprising. It seems that some people are more likely to pay first class fares if the experience includes lots of little reminders that they are enjoying privileges extended to the few and not to the many. Possibly the airlines should try the experiment of allowing first class passengers to view via a webcam the less luxurious conditions endured by those in second class. After all, according to Thomas Aquinas, “in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” (Summa Theologica, Part III, Supplement, Question 94)

So why do we accept class distinctions on planes and trains but not in the cafeteria?

The reason, presumably, is our concern that in schools the likely costs would outweigh the benefits, the main costs being the insidious harm we fear will be done to the fabric of the school community and to the way in which members of that community regard one another. Nor does this argument only hold for children in school. Few college presidents, no matter how much they desire extra revenue or harder working students, would countenance class distinctions of this sort on campus.

But then the obvious next question raised by the dining hall analogy is this: Does the current system on planes and trains carry a similar cost? Is our society subtly harmed by the institution of offering first and second-class travel options? And if so, do the harms outweigh the benefits?

These are not the kind of things that are easily measured. Even if clever social scientists managed to establish correlations between institutionalized class distinctions and lower levels of social solidarity, it would be hard to prove that one caused the other; so many other variables could be playing a part. But here is where some critical and suggestive philosophical reflection may be useful.

Defenders of the travel class distinctions have to do one of two things: either claim that there is nothing wrong with my modest proposal, or explain why the arguments against class distinctions in the school cafeteria don't hold on planes and trains. The first option is unappealing. A few bean counters might consider the cafeteria scheme a decent wheeze, but I assume most people would be moderately to mightily disgusted by it. This, I concede, is proof by “hypothetical evidence”—I hypothesize that if a school tried implementing the proposal there would be an immediate moral outcry. But this assumption strikes me as highly plausible. Critics could refute it easily enough by persuading lots of school principals to try the experiment. I predict they'll find few takers.

The other option is to break down the analogy. One difference between the two situations, it might be argued, is that whereas schools are not-for-profit public services, transport providers are commercial enterprises, so a different ethic prevails. The primary mission of United Airlines and the rest is to be profitable, and they'll naturally do whatever will help them maximize profits. That's capitalism. In fact, paying extra for first class travel is no different from paying extra for a nicer hotel room, a better view of the ball game, a front row seat at the theater, or for, that matter, a bigger house, a flashier car, and more fashionable clothes. We tolerate—even celebrate–the power of money in these and many other contexts. Of course, there are contexts where we would deem it inappropriate to let money do the talking. We wouldn't, for instance, allow rich people to jump the queue for surgery…oh, wait, scratch that. OK, we wouldn't think it right, even at private colleges, to give rich students who pay higher fees first dibs on over-enrolled courses, or more careful feedback on their assignments. But in a commercial setting we are usually comfortable with allowing money to talk.

This argument has some force. We do seem to tolerate paid-for customer privileges in a commercial context more readily than when the service is seen as a basic entitlement, such as education, or is provided by the state or some other non-profit agency. Yet the line here isn't sharp. State-owned (or subsidized) railways and airlines—Air India, for instance, or British Rail before privatization—have usually also offered first and second-class facilities. Public hospitals allow patients to pay extra for private rooms. So the onus is still on anyone who supports such practices to explain why they should not be extended to schools and colleges.

Another difference, and thus another possible flaw in the analogy, is that since class distinctions in transportation have been around a long time we have grown used to them. This very familiarity renders them relatively harmless. But if we were suddenly to introduce something similar in schools, the change would be striking, people would naturally pay much more attention to it, and for that very reason it would do more harm. Awareness of the distinction would be acute. It would be as if New York City were overnight to cordon off an especially nice section of Central Park where only “first class” visitors who had paid a surcharge enjoyed sauntering rights. The outcry would be deafening, and the damage to the social fabric of the city could be severe.

Here, too, the criticism of the parallel being drawn between class distinctions in different contexts has a point, but not a strong one. The assumption that what would be a pernicious novelty has been rendered harmless by longstanding usage is questionable—in fact it is question-begging. More fundamentally, though, both objections to the analogy can be countered by asking the question: Would the practice of having first and second class seating, first and second class service, first and second class waiting areas, etc., be part of what you consider an ideal society? If you could time travel forwards to visit the cleaner, nicer, friendlier world we are presumably trying to steer towards, would you expect institutionalized class distinctions to still exist? Or would you be deeply disappointed to find that they hadn't been eradicated?

I, for one, would be deeply disappointed. The battle cry at the outset of the modern campaign to make the world a better place to live was, as I recall, “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” I'll grudgingly grant that having the option of paying extra for certain privileges constitutes a sort of liberty (grudgingly, because an increase in freedom should mean much more than just greater consumer choice for people with means). But what about poor old equality and fraternity? How are these ideals served by institutionalized class distinctions? The obvious answer is that they are not.

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Now admittedly, there are times when the means to an end involves elements that do not belong to the end—rungs on a ladder that one hopes eventually to discard. Utopia won't have burglar alarms or tax inspectors, but that doesn't mean we should dispense with them now. At present they play a necessary part in the attempt to build a just and prosperous society. But calling to mind our utopian ideals can still serve a valuable purpose; it prompts us to ask whether our current practices are helping us advance toward those ideals or are steering us away from them, perhaps unintentionally widening the gap between our reality and our dreams.

So the next time you find yourself tempted to plunk down that extra thousand bucks for a first class seat, confident that it will accommodate you comfortably no matter how many heated cookies you scoff, ask yourself this: Should we countenance institutionalized class distinctions of this kind? If we wouldn't support them in our schools and colleges, doesn't that suggest that there is something unwholesome about them? And if they don't belong to our vision of an ideal society and are not needed to move us forward, why not inch a little closer toward that ideal right now by scrapping the practice?

One day, perhaps, a kid will ask her mother: “Mom, is it true that in the olden days they used to let rich people get on the plane first while everyone else had to wait? And that the rich people got to sit in especially comfy seats in a special part of the plane where no-one else could go?” And the mother will be able to say, “Yes, sweetie, it's true. But that was at a time when everyone was focusing on liberty—which they understood rather simplistically as maximizing consumer choice in a free market—and had rather forgotten about equality and fraternity. Eventually they realized that these values mattered as well.”

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