Lush green hills rolled into leafy valleys filled with small sturdy houses surrounded by colorful wildflowers, all set against a backdrop of majestic mountains jutting upward into a dramatic cloud-decorated sky. It was easy to be reminded of the impressionistic painters—Claude Monet and others—as well as to agree with those who insist that the natural beauty of Pérez Zeldedón is Costa Rica’s most glorious.
Yet, a more careful examination of the scenery revealed something that would never have found its way into an impressionist painting, as well as something that many people would find off-putting. Right in the middle of it was a massive house—a mansion really—and its presence dominated the landscape.
Viewing the mansion from the standpoint of say an anthropologist, the question is what it tells us about the society. An anthropologist would probably first guess that it was the palace of the king, perhaps a high priest, or maybe a publically-owned building devoted to community functions. An anthropologist would be stunned to discover that it was privately owned by a family just like the others, only richer.
Now, the anthropologist might need to take an economics lesson or two from Adam Smith. A real advantage of market societies over all those that preceded them is that it is now theoretically possible for anyone to become wealthy. No longer is wealth controlled by a royalty or priesthood; anyone willing to work hard and blessed with a little luck can have a mansion on the hillside too.
So the house may signal an improvement over even the paintings of the impressionists, since it shows the arrival of an opportunity society in which no one is arbitrarily blocked from achieving prosperity and everyone is better off for that.
This though is to assume that the house is owned by someone who actually generated prosperity. Perhaps it is, but most mansions frankly aren’t. The bulk of the wealth in Costa Rica is the inherited kind, not the earned stuff, and the country is now more internally unequal than Mexico.
And odds are the in the owners of the mansion are even Ticos. Many mansion-owners in Pérez Zeledón aren’t. They are foreigners who amassed their wealth in societies that provided more economic opportunities than Costa Rica, and only moved here to spend it on opulence they couldn’t afford had they stayed home.
The mansion on the hillside may therefore signal only the fickleness of the global economic lottery in which a few are born to advantage and most aren’t.
The strangest thing about the mansion though is how it intentionally dominates the landscape. It is one thing to be wealthy and to enjoy one’s affluence, but quite another to display that wealth so ostentatiously. Clearly the owners of the mansion are not merely enjoying their affluence privately, but also spending some of it in a display of what Thorstein Veblen famously called “conspicuous consumption.”
In fact, the owners of the mansion are hogging land they don’t even own. By building their mansion on the dominate point of the hillside, they change the impression of everything else. Those living in the small sturdy houses in the valley now appear to be but peasants living in the shadow of their superiors, not the dignified families they would be without the mansion’s dominating presence.
When this is the effect of mansion-building, it’s hard not to suspect it’s among the motivations. Whoever owns the mansion seems not only to want to enjoy it for its own sake, but also to announce their social superiority over those in the valley.
Perhaps this is roughly how the world has always worked and always will: People jockeying for status and superiority over others. If it is, it might be better for the global market coupled with inheritance to set the rules rather than a royalty or priesthood.
Nevertheless, I did not like what I saw in Pérez Zeledón, and believe we can all do better than building domineering mansions on otherwise picturesque hillsides.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of Inside Costa Rica or its staff.