Old Whine, New Bottle — Luxury Beliefs II

August 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1930s, wealthy Republicans called FDR “a traitor to his class.” The logic of this label seems to be that if you’re rich, you ought to favor policies that benefit the rich, not the poor and the working class.

In the 1960s, Republicans disparaged wealthy Democrats as “limousine liberals.” It’s the same idea — if you’re rich enough to ride in a limo, you shouldn’t be a liberal —  but adds something special. It questions the motives of liberals and says they are hypocrites.

In 1970, journalist Tom Wolfe gave the same idea yet a new name, “radical chic,” in his long article about a fund-raiser that Leonard Bernstein held for the defense of thirteen Black Panther party members who were in jail awaiting trial. (See this post.)  What interested Wolfe was not guilt or innocence or justice (eventually all the Panthers were acquitted of all charges) but the motives of Bernstein and his guests.

Apparently it bothers the hell out of conservatives when people of privilege say and do things that might help the less privileged. Conservatives are still serving up this same complaint. The new label on the bottle is “luxury beliefs.” The term was coined recently by Rob Henderson and got some attention, especially over on the right, when the New York Post ran his op-ed “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans.”

Here’s the gist of it.

In the past, upper-class Americans used to display their social status with luxury goods. Today, they do it with luxury beliefs.

People care a lot about social status. In fact, research indicates that respect and admiration from our peers are even more important than money for our sense of well-being.

We feel pressure to display our status in new ways. This is why fashionable clothing always changes. But as trendy clothes and other products become more accessible and affordable, there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods.

The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.

It’s a commonplace observation that people are sensitive to how others respond to their ideas. Like the clothes we wear, the ideas we express are part of our self-presentation (now called “signalling”). That’s true for people of all social groups. But with ideas, it’s more likely that what people are signalling is not social status in the usual sense but membership in a group.

Henderson’s argument in 2019, much like Tom Wolfe’s in 1970, is based on attributing motives that the people he’s attributing them to would deny. He’s saying “upper-class Americans” (a term he does not define) espouse their beliefs not because, as they would claim, the ideas are true or will make for a better society, but in order to signal their own high social status. Of course,  Henderson has no evidence of that motive (or if he does, he’s keeping quiet about it). Impugning the motives of others is easy. Providing evidence is hard.*

What’s new is Henderson’s assertion that these luxury beliefs harm the lower class. Here too, as I said in the previous post, Henderson presents no evidence that the ideas of the privileged about marriage and family have “trickled down” through the class strata or that it’s those ideas that have damaged the lives of the poor. He makes a similar claim about ideas regarding the importance of luck and other factors beyond the control of the individual. Henderson doesn’t mention it, but on this point there is some evidence, which I hope to get to in a later post.**

* Tom Wolfe too  “reported” the thoughts and motives of the people he was writing about even when those people never expressed the ideas he attributed to them. You might think of this as “making stuff up,” but it brought Wolfe much admiration for his “novelistic techniques.”

** That post is now here.

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