09/13/2010 06:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Travel and Social Privilege

Pat from the UK writes in on the growing discussion about "Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World".

To say the least, the concept of investing in expanding your worldview as opposed to investing in a career draws a range of perspectives. I thought it was a good comment, so I'm including it here with his permission.

This is a fascinating idea but such traveling can only exist because most other people cannot do it. For example, that airplane you use to travel is built by non-traveling factory workers who earn low incomes and have families to support. It's flown by pilots, staffed by stewards who work full-time.

When you land, you are staying in a hotel or hostel ran and maintained by non-traveling staff. The taxis you use, the buses you use, all staffed by non-traveling people. I can go on about restaurants, etc. If the whole world decided to live like this, it would be an unsustainable way of life.

Pat raises a good issue. Most airplanes are actually made by people who are fairly well off in Seattle and Toulouse, but aside from that, it's true that not everyone can travel like me or many of our readers. And it's also true that not everyone in "the whole world" could travel this way, or travel at all.

There's no doubt that I'm fairly privileged, and wherever you're reading from, I'm assuming you are too. When it comes down to it, most poor people around the world don't read blogs... they don't read in English... and many of them aren't able to read at all.

A more appropriate question, therefore, is what should the privileged do? How should we respond to the reality of inequality -- should we not do something because other people lack the same freedom? I have my own answer to that, of course, but it's not the only answer.

Clearly, it's a luxury to be able to visit new lands, to have sufficient disposable income that we can choose to invest it in widening our horizons. This doesn't mean that travel is bad, or that we have to apologize for it because it is not universally available.

Pancake Mountain

I started thinking about this question several years ago when I took a brief trip to the U.S. while living in Liberia. I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Chicago and was amazed at the size and quantity of the available food at the breakfast buffet the next morning. As I gazed at the overflowing stacks of enormous blueberry muffins and the gallon jugs of orange juice, I almost expected to see a sign that read "Welcome to America!"

I don't get culture shock very often, but for a few moments that morning, I was freaked out. I thought about my friends back in Liberia, who would have been a lot more shocked than me to see the huge spread at the buffet. My Liberian friends weren't starving, but they didn't have four-egg omelets and custom waffle stations either. This was definitely a nicer breakfast with far more choices than any of them would have that day.

For a few moments I agonized over whether it was morally right for me to eat a stack of pancakes while conditions were much poorer where I had just come from. Then I realized, if I don't eat the pancakes, will it make any difference back in Liberia? Nope, nothing would be different over there.

Then I realized further that the goal of eliminating poverty isn't to take pancakes away from people at the Courtyard by Marriott but rather to create a world where anyone who wanted pancakes could have them. In the case of travel, perhaps it's not possible for everyone in the whole world to head out the door on a regular basis, but that doesn't mean that no one else should do so either, nor does it mean that anyone has to be harmed by those who choose to leave home.

The lifestyle guilt trip logic is faulty, because you could apply it to almost anything that costs money. Should you not eat at a restaurant because other people can't afford to? Should you not buy books because other people can't read?

Instead of choosing a scarcity mindset ("all travel is bad" or "no one should spend money on themselves"), the goal is to enable more people to make choices of their own free will. How can we create opportunities? How can we give more than we take? This is what expanding the pie is all about, choosing to be generous and outward-focused while still pursuing our own dreams.

My view is that it's better to think about our role in the world and what we can do to expand freedom and opportunities for others. The right kind of travel can benefit both the traveler and the people who live in the place. In some cases, a sustainable tourism industry may be the best bet for a country that lacks natural resources.

But it's far from a settled issue. Don't believe anyone who says that all travel is inherently evil, or that all travel is inherently good. It's more nuanced than that.

That's my $0.02, anyway... what do you think about travel and social privilege?