I recently waded through Veblen’s famous Theory of the Leisure Class. I found it tough reading, far more of a slog than reading Hayek, and on par with reading some of the great philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In an essay that you simply must read, HL Mencken describes the writing of Veblen as, “An Appalling Salvo of Rhetorical Artillery.”
One of the points Veblen tries to make and that Mencken criticizes in his essay is that what made something a “luxury” was that it was exclusive. I suppose I always implicitly agreed with that view. But that view embeds in it a logical fallacy. Not everything that is exclusive is a luxury. Nor if we dig deep is the “luxuriousness” of something solely or always in its exclusivity. From reading his work, it is hard to understand if he is cognizant of these points. They, on their own, do not refute his idea that lots of luxury goods tend to be exclusive, but the modern popular condemnation of luxury goods consumption and the evils of inequality and unhappiness that are tied to it are with us today, and no doubt owe their strength to Veblen’s arguments.
Many exclusive “goods” are incredibly undesirable. I don’t think being the only person in snowy Rochester to have a case of Dengue Fever is the height of luxury. Nor do I think that if you had the only autographed copy of the “Collected Works of Wintercow” that this would be the mark of luxury – even if you viewed that as being so profound and insightful that no lesser person than you could appreciate having it. You may feel that it is a luxury, but the rest of us would have no comprehension that this is so. Nor does a good being expensive mean it is the mark of luxury, and causes envy, resentment and injustice. If my very home were replanted in Southern California, it would cost four times what we paid for it. New York Jets season tickets are very expensive, but holding onto them is not the sign of luxury or affluence – in fact it is a sign of dedication for many, as Jets fans have a reputation for coming from middle class New York backgrounds, with these tickets making up a considerable chunk of their free cash expenditures. “The rich” certainly are not clamoring to sit in 10 degree weather, downing $12 watered down beer while yelling at every player on the team despite the exclusive nature of these tickets. Sure, the poor who are football fans might wish they could go to the games – but would we want to say that “anything the poor cannot afford” is a luxury good, and causes resentment and envy? You know where that idea logically takes us, it is absurd. In that kind of a world, only the single richest person in the world does not suffer from the supposed tyranny of luxury.
Mencken spends time in his essay on my second point – that the luxuriousness of something need not lie in its exclusivity. Is the reason you get so much pleasure out of drinking a piece of aged strip steak because your poorer neighbors could not afford it. And if they suddenly could afford it, would that make that steak less enjoyable to you? Does taking in a spectacular view of Yellowstone Falls thrill you because a poor inner-city family is unlikely to be able to afford the trip out there? And here is Mencken per the title of the post:
“Did I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman—or because the pretty girl looked better, smelled better and kissed better?
Look, I certainly appreciate that there are “positional goods” out there, goods whose value is derived based on where you stand in the relative distribution of the thing. For a variety of reasons, as I have written here before, I am not moved that the existence of such goods justifies any coercive action. The points above however are intended to argue that even IF there is a case for coercive aggressive taxation to put a halt to the consumption of such goods, there are far fewer “positional” goods out there than the popular view seems to appreciate, and identifying them is no less difficult and is no more arbitrary a process than the identification of a price cut as being predatory. In the meantime, do read that Mencken piece, I promise you will get a good chuckle out of it. Here is one more gem from it:
But Marx, at this business, labored under a technical handicap; he wrote in German, a language he actually understood. Prof. Veblen submitted himself to no such disadvantage. Though born, I believe, in These States, and resident here all his life, he achieved the effect, perhaps without employing the means, of thinking in some unearthly foreign language—say Swahili, Sumerian or Old Bulgarian—and then painfully clawing his thoughts into a copious but uncertain and book-learned English. The result was a style that affected the higher cerebral centers like a constant roll of subway expresses.