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Kent Hayden, M.Div. Headshot

Affluenza, Privilege, and the Threat to American Freedom

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Power in America exists as money and education. It is a limited resource.

Freedom in America includes (but is broader than) access to opportunities to compete for power. A person who is not able to compete for money and education is, in a meaningful way, not free.

Privilege is an advantage in the competition for power held by those who come from power. Since opportunities to compete for power are limited, the exercise of privilege diminishes the freedom of those who lack it.

Privilege comes in two forms: familial and institutional. Given that power is a limited resource, those who hold it are reluctant to give it up. This is neither unnatural nor immoral; it is human. But unchecked, familial privilege tends toward aristocracy. This is why America was designed with checks on the exercise of institutional privilege. The ideal of our capitalistic democracy is that, while power is distributed according to one's merits, and may be used, hoarded, or wasted at will, freedom to compete for power is equally available to all. This encourages competition and is intended to prevent the stagnation of power in any hands but those with the most merit.

But the natural incentives of those with power run exactly against such freedom. The ideals of a capitalistic democracy thus demand limits on the institutional exercise and bolstering of privilege.

When the institutions that allocate freedom respond to the whims of those with power, freedom is commodified, and the ideals of a capitalistic democracy are threatened. The worst example of this I have seen is the recent judgment in the manslaughter case of a Texas teen who received a lenient punishment on account of his affluence.

This ruling is one of many symptoms of the institutionalization of privilege in our country. Far more common are the affirmative action programs engaged by most elite schools known as 'legacy admissions.' Children of graduates at these schools are given preferential admission consideration. This limits the freedom to compete of those who don't come from power. It threatens our capitalistic ideals because it skews access to a central path to power in favor of those already holding it.

There are private high schools, for those who can afford to attend, from which the top 30 percent will be admitted to an ivy-league college. There are public schools, for those who can't afford to go elsewhere, from which the top 30 percent will be lucky to go to college. It is certainly the case that the education at the former schools is better than at the latter. But it is a classic fallacy to use the effects of inequality to justify its perpetuation.

I am pro-meritocracy. I am a capitalist. And I believe the institutionalization of privilege is a threat to these ideals. Affluenza affects more than the world-view of wealthy teens. It threatens the structural integrity of our society. Those of us who feel it need to articulate the distinction between the loss of privilege and the loss of freedom. Because given the rising disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots," we must choose between one loss or the other.