Recently, two high-profile supporters of “justice reform” were murdered.
At 4 a.m. on Monday, Ryan Carson, a 32-year-old social justice and climate change activist, was walking with his girlfriend in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, when he was stabbed to death by a stranger. Only a few hours earlier in Philadelphia, activist and journalist Josh Kruger was shot and killed in his home.
On Monday night, blocks away from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Congressman Henry Cuellar was carjacked by three armed men. (The lawmaker survived the incident unscathed.) In February, Angie Craig was attacked in an elevator at her apartment building in Capitol Hill. A homeless man demanded she allow him into her home to use the restroom, then he punched her and grabbed her around the neck. She escaped after throwing hot coffee on him.
Of course, these people did not deserve harm because of their support for soft-on-crime policies. But I’ve long argued that many people who hold “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes—are oblivious to the consequences of their views. Support for defunding the police is a classic example.
Luxury beliefs can stem from malice, good intentions, or outright naivete.
Some online commenters have said that my luxury beliefs thesis is undermined by these tragic events, because the victims were affluent and influential—and they still suffered the consequences of their beliefs.
But the fact remains that poor people are far more likely to be victims of violent crime. For every upper-middle-class person killed, 20 poor people you never hear about are assaulted and murdered. You just never hear about them. They don’t get identified by name in the media. Their stories don’t get told.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poorest Americans are seven times more likely to be victims of robbery, seven times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault, and twenty times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than Americans who earn more than $75,000. One 2004 study found that people in areas where over 20 percent of inhabitants live in poverty are more than 100 times more likely to be murdered than people in areas where less than 10 percent of residents live in poverty.
Expressing a luxury belief is a manifestation of cultural capital, a signal of one’s fortunate economic circumstances. And we are living with the consequences of the elite’s luxury beliefs when it comes to public safety and criminal justice. Indeed, the massive spike in violent crime across the U.S. is a reminder of the power of elite opinion.
A study from 2014 found that strong support for a policy among the middle class has virtually no effect on whether that policy will be adopted. In contrast, strong support among Americans in the top income decile—those who earn at least $173,000 a year—doubles the probability that a policy will be adopted.
Who was most likely to champion the fashionable “defund the police” cause in 2020 and 2021?
A nationwide survey from YouGov found that Americans in the highest income category were by far the most supportive of defunding the police. Among Democratic voters, white Democrats were more likely to support reducing police funding than black or Hispanic Democrats.
In response to elite opinion in 2020, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, and many other major cities in the U.S. reduced police spending.
Most people didn’t want to defund the police, but the most affluent sector of society did. And so it was implemented.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that “distance from necessity” signals high social class. Similarly, in his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, Paul Fussell points out that the presence of physical danger is a marker of low social class. For instance, among occupations, a big reason why being a diesel mechanic or an electric power line installer is considered working class—while being a schoolteacher is middle class—is that the former jobs are more dangerous.
The vast majority of educated people have never been in a real fight or experienced serious physical injury. On occasion, I’ve wondered if this is why many of them believe words are “violence.” They have never known serious physical pain. I recently spoke with an editor at a prestigious magazine who explained how shocked he was to learn from Tara Westover’s memoir Educated how frequently people who work in junkyards experience cuts, scrapes, bruises, and burns. Physical pain—even bodily soreness—was just not a reality in this person’s world.
I had a professor in college who liked to say that common sense is like air: the higher you go, the thinner it gets. Sadly, it will probably take more high-profile deaths and attacks for people to wake up. When a bunch of peasants are killed, the luxury belief class shrugs. But when the nobility and petty nobility are targeted, the narrative shifts. It’s only when those in positions of influence and privilege feel the consequences of their beliefs and policies that real change is seriously considered.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Ryan Carson was murdered in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was killed in Bedford–Stuyvesant. The Free Press regrets the error.
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