Paul Bloom points out that we value certain goods for their intrinsic meaning—in particular for their histories—and not for their mere use or to flaunt our status. I agree. One of my favorite possessions is my father’s slide rule, an object that has no status value and not much utility but whose place on my desk makes me feel closer to my dead, beloved parent. So, too, we feel love for our children, and the beauty of a Shakespeare sonnet or a painting by Cézanne fills us with pleasure and provokes us to think. The question is, what does this argument for intrinsic meaning have to do with the high-end consumption that Bloom seeks to defend against its critics?
Bloom suggests that the connection between genuine Rolex watches, Prada handbags, and their intrinsic meaning—their history—is a thumb on the scale against progressive taxation and consumption taxes. I find this argument—even in the qualified“anti-anti luxury goods” form —unconvincing.
A good’s meaning and price do not usually travel together.
The brand name of a good, the identity of the artist who created a painting attributed to Cézanne, whether I built a table for myself or bought it from a woodworker, the fact that a given slide rule belonged to my father—all in some way establish the provenance of a good. But why should we think these histories are in any normative or descriptive sense alike?
While people may reasonably feel a link to an admired artist who is part of their cultural heritage or to a parent, does the Rolex owner really value the craftsman who made the watch? What exactly is the “historical” connection? Aside from an extremely attenuated market connection, there is no link between owner and Rolex maker, except perhaps in the sense that its owner feels pleasure because he owns what he believes is a real Rolex.
Still, suppose that what Bloom says is true: luxury brand names are valued because of the history with which they imbue an object, a history that brings pleasure even when no difference can be discerned between an “authentic” example of such a good and an exact copy of it. People also feel genuine pleasure from status goods as well as from goods with certain attributes they like (e.g., mystery novels). Of what significance is that pleasure to the moralist or utilitarian critic of luxury consumption? And what are its implications for social policy?
Most moralists would have no trouble making a fairness-based case for distinguishing between expensive preferences and inexpensive ones. It is hard to see why a taste for expensive brand names stands in a different moral position than a taste for enormous mansions, even if the former are not status goods and the latter are. A utilitarian would count whatever pleasure the rich get from paying $50,000 for a wristwatch that keeps time as well as a $50 one. But that pleasure would not outweigh the utility generated by using the same money to meet urgent social needs.
It is also hard to see any policy implications from Bloom’s argument, even if everything he claims is true. No one has suggested that the sale of Rolex watches be banned. The only relevant policy issue is whether to levy a separate tax on the consumption of luxury goods. From a utilitarian view, there is a strong case for doing so because of the extreme inelasticity of demand for luxury goods. (In fact, a Rolex watch might be a prime example of a Veblen good, one that is even more desirable at a higher price.) And from a moralist view, the fact that the rich are doing something purely discretionary when they purchase such goods bolsters a case for additional taxation.
In the end, Bloom’s qualified, “anti-anti” case for luxury goods is very qualified. But even so, we should not think that strong (“pro-pro”?) endorsement of social justice compromises our ability to appreciate the history of a thing. As my father’s slide rule demonstrates, a good’s meaning and its market price do not usually travel together. And even in cases of goods whose meaning is proportional to their price, the pleasure thereby produced gives us no new reason to refrain from pursuing the most efficient and fair tax policy.