Monday, July 4, 2005

Recently a friend described a meeting with a nasty-tempered leftist from a rich family. Unfortunately, many leftists were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and, instead of being grateful, are venomous against American society.

Conversely, there are people like yours truly who were born on the other end of the economic scale and think this is a great country. No one has really explained either phenomenon.

Maybe a painful early confrontation with the facts of life makes it harder in later years to get all worked up over abstract issues that seem to preoccupy the left.

Once you have ever had to go hungry, it is hard to get worked up over the fact some people can afford only pizza while others can afford caviar. Once you have had to walk to work from Harlem to a factory south of the Brooklyn Bridge, the difference between driving a Honda and driving a Lexus seems kind of petty, too.

Would a poverty-stricken peasant in Bangladesh find the difference between the average American’s standard of living and that of a millionaire something to get excited about? If he had a choice between a certainty of getting the first and a 1-in-2 chance of getting the second, would he take the risk to go for a million bucks? I doubt it.

The general public has never been as worked up about “income distribution” as the left. Nor is this due to any deeper understanding on the part of the left. On the contrary, liberals and other leftists have constantly misconceived the issue.

Differences between people in different income brackets tell you absolutely nothing about who those people are or how long they have been in those brackets. Most Americans who are at some point in their lives in the bottom 20 percent in income are in the top 20 percent at some other point.

They usually start at the bottom and work their way up, with a few blips up and down along the way. The more affluent the country becomes, the less those transient statistical differences really matter, except to those with the money, the leisure and the inclination to adopt indignation as a way of life.

Environmentalism is another playground of the affluent. “Nature” is wonderful when you can look out on it from your luxury cabin in the woods or upscale digs at the shore.

Roughing it in the wild is great when you know that, if something goes wrong, a helicopter can lift you to safety or to a hospital, as the case may be. This is what might be called artificial nature or the illusion of nature.

Real nature can be pretty ugly, as the pioneers discovered, and as the bleached bones of their animals or of the pioneers themselves on the old trails can attest. Even in more recent times, anyone who has had to get up on cold mornings, all winter long, to start a fire to heat the house is unlikely to regard it as a romantic experience.

It’s romantic if you do it for a little while, by choice, knowing it is only a matter of time before you return to your home with central heating, provided by oil you don’t want drilled offshore or in Alaska or by coal you deplore seeing mined anywhere.

Personally, only within the last few years have I been able to enjoy starting a fire in the fireplace — in my centrally heated home. It reminded me too much of being a kid down South when a fireplace was all we had to keep warm in the winter.

Of all the romantic self-indulgences of the affluent and the wealthy, few are more ridiculous than their passion to “save” farmland. This country has no shortage of farmland or of food.

One of our biggest problems is overeating and, even so, there are huge agricultural surpluses that cost the taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Yet the greenies with lots of green push for laws and policies to prevent farmers from selling their land to people who want to build houses on it.

Would it be worth it to be rich if it also meant being so foolish? I doubt it.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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