Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Even if everything I say about luxury goods is true, Debra Satz argues, it would have no policy implications. I disagree, but it wouldn’t break my heart if she were right; the pleasure we get from Rolex watches and Armani suits is a fascinating topic quite apart from policy concerns. These excellent commentaries—from scientists and humanists—show how much there is to explore about the nature and consequences of this pleasure.
I agree with Will Wilkinson that there is no single story to be given about why we like luxury goods. My essay focuses on our response to their history, relating the pleasure we get from such goods to the pleasure we get from things such as wedding rings and teddy bears. I concede that sensory experience and status signaling are relevant as well.
But I don’t think that Wilkinson gets my theory quite right. He says my sons’ baby shoes are valuable to me as a “sentimental reminder of a treasured past.” This isn’t my view, and it couldn’t be right—photographs and videos are far better reminders of my past, and yet have less value than the shoes. As Bruce Hood discusses, history matters to the value we perceive in objects. It is not that the shoes make me think of my sons; it is that my sons once wore them. Similarly, one doesn’t value a Rolex because of the thoughts it inspires, but rather—at least in part—because of an appreciation of its history.
A few commentators explore societal differences regarding what sort of history matters. Hood suggests that one doesn’t find the same sort of celebrity memorabilia in more collectivist cultures such as India; my colleague Nicholas Christakis presents evidence that the endowment effect, in which objects gain value if you own them, does not hold for societies in which individuals have few possessions, such as the Hadza of Tasmania. Shamus Khan reviews a different type of cultural variation—differences in the sorts of items that members of different communities count as “chosen excess” and hence, by his useful definition, as luxury items.
Critics of our appetite for luxury suggest there are ready substitutes. They might be right.
Hood and Susan Gelman are fellow psychologists, so naturally they are drawn to the dark side of our obsession with the past. I share this interest. In the study I described in which contact with an admired individual, such as George Clooney, raised the value of an object, we also found that contact with a despised individual, such as Bernie Madoff, lowered the value. Like Hood’s and Gelman’s, my research draws on the insights of Paul Rozin, who has long argued that negative contact can trump positive contact. This is certainly the case with contagion. As Rozin notes, “A drop of sewage spoils a barrel of wine, but a drop of wine does nothing for a barrel of sewage.”
Gelman focuses on objects that we reject due to their negative history, but Hood notes as well the strange appeal of “murderabilia.” He suggests that this attraction is limited to “a few perverse people,” but I’m not convinced. I’d bet that many would get a kick out of owning the cookbook that Hitler used to prepare schnitzel for Eva Braun. I certainly would, though I find it hard to articulate why. It is a topic for future research.
Other commentators raise alternative theories about why we like luxury. Virginia Postrel talks about its value as a different sort of signaling: certain goods signal social identity and affiliation. This seems right and can be distinguished from the sort of signaling that economists and evolutionary theorists talk about. A man might wear an Armani suit not to convey wealth and status, but instead to identify himself as part of the community of men who wear such suits.
Joel Podolny thinks I get it wrong—that story, not history, is what matters. He is right that stories have a powerful appeal, but even he notes that this fact doesn’t explain the desire to possess certain things: “I did not need to own the Hope Diamond to derive value from the stories associated with it.” In almost all of the cases the other commentators and I discuss, history really is the quality that raises the object’s value. When Satz talks about her beloved slide rule, she doesn’t tell us a story about it; she simply notes that it was her father’s. When David Cloutier discusses the connection between luxury goods and certain sacred objects, again history matters; some objects of veneration become precious “because they have been endowed with a holiness of touch.”
Christakis forces me to consider more practical issues. In his fascinating studies on cooperation in artificial societies, he finds that inequality per se does not have bad social effects—only visible inequality does. This leads to a mixed message: you can have your luxury goods; just keep them out of sight.
It is worth noting, though, that in Christakis’s artificial world, people differ only in the dimension of wealth. In the real world, there is much else. My neighbor has a Rolex and a Ferrari, so he is richer, but my children are better looking and better behaved. He is more fit, but I’ve published in Boston Review. I’d love to see further research by Christakis and colleagues exploring whether the same corrosive effect of visibility would arise in a more realistic simulation with multiple hierarchies, where money isn’t everything.
Other commentators also weigh in on the social and moral consequences of luxury goods. Judith Levine reminds us how deep this issue is, connecting it to a debate between Glaucon and Socrates concerning what people are and how they wish to live. She ends up siding against these goods, worrying about the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of the poor. Cloutier worries as well about the suffering of those who create the objects; when it comes to history, he suggests, we should think about the hands that built the iPhone or sewed the expensive shirt.
Khan and Satz are the most critical about our appetite for luxury goods, suggesting that there are ready substitutes for such things. As Satz puts it, if history matters, then one doesn’t need fancy goods to scratch that itch—objects like her father’s slide rule will suffice.
They might be right. But I wish the commentators had engaged my point that expensive artwork is also a luxury item. From a psychological standpoint, there is little difference between a Rolex and a Rothko.
Some critics of excess, such as Peter Singer, are willing to bite the bullet here, arguing that buying and collecting such art, and supporting museums that do so, is wasteful and immoral. Singer notes that if we enjoy artwork, we can always create it ourselves and admire the efforts of our friends. I wonder whether commentators such as Khan and Satz, who are so enthusiastic about such alternatives when it comes to other sorts of luxuries, would agree.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.