When the Yale-educated social anthropologist Wednesday Martin discovered that rich families are using handicapped people to jump the lines at Disney World–according to Tara Palmieri in the the New York Post–a whole new wave of 1% nausea hit. Wealthy people are renting out wheelchair or scooter-bound Floridians by the day, so their kids can avoid the long lines at rides and go straight to the gates reserved for the handicapped. That Martin is a sensationalist (her new book about stepmothers is called Stepmonster–she’s gunning for Oprah) doesn’t mean she’s a fabulist: this practice is really going on. It’s wrong and reprehensible, we all feel it in our gut. But who, exactly, does it cheat?
Wheelchairgate may be the perfect example of the problem with unchecked free-market capitalism. Technically, this is a situation where everyone is following the rules–it’s just that the rules can’t prevent an unfair advantage being taken by those with financial wherewithal and inside information. First, the inside information part: knowledge of service was spread strictly by word-of-mouth through closed, privileged networks of upper-crust families–so even if a poor family had wanted to spend its last dime on the dream of line-less Disney it wouldn’t know how. And the money part is obvious: the Post reports that the “black market guides” run more than $1,000 a day. But most telling is the difficulty in pinpointing the victims. If the regular wait for a ride is two hours, then one group cutting in line using the questionable practice hardly affects the regular crowd: it changes the general wait time by only fractions of a percent. What it does affect is the perception of fairness that is critical for an egalitarian society to function properly. It’s a virtually victimless practice, except for the harm it does to the system–and the belief in the system–which underpins the environment capitalism needs in order to work. Ironically, the closest thing to a victim here is not the handicapped, who are making the most of their situation, but the children being given the privilege: taking advantage of it they unwittingly undermine a system that afforded them the advantage to begin with. (How do the parents present this? Do they tell the kids they’re treating the handicapped to a day of fun? A new take on trickle-down?) History says that if the system’s not fair, it won’t last (see serfdom, slavery, apartheid, etc.). Ignoring the spirit of the rules, if not the rules themselves, the rich risk squandering their position by chopping down the trunk of the tree they’ve ascended.