I have no idea what Paul Bloom means by “luxury.” Is it something we value but don’t need? Not quite. Bloom gives many examples of objects—wedding rings, old teddy bears, blank pieces of paper, bits of trees, sweaters—none of which are luxuries, all of which we value, and few of which we need. In the end this erudite and enjoyable essay is difficult to grasp. We learn that we should be against those who are against luxury. What we are for, I don’t know.
So let me try to provide the kind of clarity I wish for.
Luxury is enjoyment of chosen excess. (The word derives from the Latin luxus, which means excess.) A pink Hermes Birkin handbag recently sold for $230,000. A bag may well be necessary for modern daily existence, but one like this is most certainly excessive, no matter your income bracket.
Yet it is not only the rich who can enjoy luxuries: excess is a relative term. During World War II, products such as nylon stockings became luxuries for American women, as DuPont, the only producer of nylon yarn at the time, was otherwise occupied with the war machine. British rationing of meat, butter, and sugar meant one had to splurge on formerly mundane items. Indeed, to eat them was excessive, as British health improved under rationing.
Objects themselves are not luxurious. The experience of the object matters.
War is not the only maker of excess from the formerly mundane. In colonial times lobsters were considered “poverty food”; indentured servants from Massachusetts successfully sued their masters for serving it too often, resulting in contracts that limited lobster consumption to three times per week. Today, to order lobster at a restaurant is to indulge in a luxury so extravagant that some consumers may find themselves subject to others’ judgment. In his forthcoming book on the urban poor, Matthew Desmond has a chapter entitled “Lobster on Food Stamps,” chronicling the small luxuries of the poor. They cannot afford lobster and may well suffer from indulging in it, yet being able to make this choice allows the poor an imperfection that makes them human.
The changing fate of the lobster helps us see that objects themselves are not luxurious. It is the experience of the object that matters. A Rolex is likely not a luxury for the Amazonian Amondawa tribe, who have no concept of time. This does not mean that the Amondawa don’t have luxuries—they certainly do—only that the meaning of excess is contingent and that luxuries must be experiences we choose and enjoy.
In this sense Bloom is right: one cannot be against luxury. I would only add that one also can’t be for it. To choose and enjoy excess is something all humans, given the opportunity, will try to do. Luxuries are a social fact. Once we understand precisely what luxury is—a pair of stockings for the American woman in the 1940s, a spoon of jam for a Londoner during the war, a meal without lobster for an indentured servant in the 1700s Boston, a meal with lobster for a poor woman in Milwaukee, a particularly nice hat for the Amondawa—the interesting questions become how luxuries are distributed and what the differential consequences are for enjoying them.
The upshot is that those who call for a luxury tax would never eliminate luxuries. Nor would something be lost, as Bloom suggests. The well-off would still enjoy the experience of choosing excess; they’d just choose less dramatic excesses. Those less well-off, however, would benefit from such a tax. Through it we could afford a safety net that would help protect us all from the negative consequences of indulging and enjoying our desires for excess.