Quote of the Day:
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
–Rob Henderson in Quillette
Move over, Thorstein Veblen.
Veblen, you’ll remember, was the capitalism critic who promoted the idea that the rich consume luxury goods conspicuously to show their status.
Rob Henderson proposes in Quillette that today’s affluent signal their status by embracing luxury beliefs.
Replace owning white tie and tails with believing in open borders, and you are onto what Henderson regards as the new trappings of the new upper class.
That would explain the tenacity with which graduates of the best universities cling to certain ideas that seem prima facie illogical: I need these ideas to announce my class affiliation.
Just as wearing a Canada Goose jacket, which costs nearly a thousand dollars, flaunts status, so do the right ideas. Henderson observes:
This is not to say that elite colleges don’t educate their students, or that Canada Goose jackets don’t keep their wearers warm. But top universities are also crucial for induction into the luxury belief class. Take vocabulary. Your typical middle-class American could not tell you what “heteronormative” or “cisgender” means. But if you visit Harvard, you’ll find plenty of rich 19-year-olds who will eagerly explain them to you.
When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is “I was educated at a top college.” Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.” Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.
The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate evidence of the believer’s social class and education. Only academics educated at elite institutions could have conjured up a coherent and reasonable-sounding argument for why parents should not be allowed to raise their kids, and should hold baby lotteries instead. When an affluent person advocates for drug legalization, or anti-vaccination policies, or open borders, or loose sexual norms, or uses the term “white privilege,” they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, “I am a member of the upper class.”
The conspicuous consumption of luxury goods might have stoked envy in people who could not afford such displays, but otherwise it didn’t really harm them. But luxury beliefs do harm those who can’t afford to indulge in them. Henderson writes:
Affluent people promote open borders or the decriminalization of drugs because it advances their social standing, not least because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others. The logic is akin to conspicuous consumption—if you’re a student who has a large subsidy from your parents and I do not, you can afford to waste $900 and I can’t, so wearing a Canada Goose jacket is a good way of advertising your superior wealth and status.
Proposing policies that will cost you as a member of the upper class less than they would cost me serve the same function. Advocating for open borders and drug experimentation are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than me.
Unfortunately, the luxury beliefs of the upper class often trickle down and are adopted by people lower down the food chain, which means many of these beliefs end up causing social harm. Take polyamory. I had a revealing conversation recently with a student at an elite university. He said that when he sets his Tinder radius to five miles, about half of the women, mostly other students, said they were “polyamorous” in their bios. Then, when he extended the radius to 15 miles to include the rest of the city and its outskirts, about half of the women were single mothers.
The costs created by the luxury beliefs of the former are borne by the latter. Polyamory is the latest expression of sexual freedom championed by the affluent. They are in a better position to manage the complications of novel relationship arrangements. And if these relationships don’t work out, they can recover thanks to their financial capability and social capital. The less fortunate suffer by adopting the beliefs of the upper class.
Back when I was a reporter writing society stories (antiquated concept), I always thought that the quest for status was as basic to humankind as the drive for food and shelter.
If I was right in this, it means that people will not easily be debated out of harmful beliefs if these beliefs confer status.