On Luxury Beliefs

I read a fascinating article recently comparing so-called ‘luxury beliefs’ to Veblen goods. The definition is as follows:

” Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.”

I’d always considered that luxury beliefs were adopted simply because they sounded nice, allowing the rich (here including the middle classes) to adopt unrealistic ideas that salved their conscience while ignoring the heavy cost that was paid by others in society. But the article argues that luxury ideas are adopted as a status symbol – and then those who adopt them actively look down on those who hold commonplace views. The comparison is made with Veblen goods, luxury status symbol goods that defy the normal demand curve, by increasing in desirability the more the price increases (Rolex watches and university fees are two well-established examples of real-world Veblen goods).

I’m not convinced this is the only reason. The conscience-salving cause – and sometimes just simple unawareness – seem likely to be just as strong. But the status symbol idea may well be part of it, particularly when it comes to creating and signalling a sense of in-group or belonging. The article is, in any case, worth a read for its broader description of luxury beliefs, as well as for this particular hypothesis.

How do luxury beliefs work?

As said, luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while the main price is paid by those less fortunate. This does not mean they do not affect the real world: for example, one could see that the time to debate whether mathematical objects had a real Platonic existence was a luxury; however, this is not what is meant by a luxury belief. On the contrary, a luxury belief is a belief about real world policies with genuine consequences but one which, if adopted, the rich and middle class are much better able to shield themselves from its negative consequences (due to their wealth, social capital, home location, education, etc.) than those less fortunate.

A classic example is being soft on crime. Most people wish to appear compassionate and to give others a second chance. Therefore soft-on-crime measures have an instinctive appeal – whether that’s reducing prison sentences, curbs on the police’s powers or giving more criminals a second chance. But on the other hand, if soft-on-crime measures cause crime to increase – which they often do – it is not those in the leafy suburbs.

Most crime, particularly violent crime, takes place against poorer people. But the overwhelming majority of poor people are not criminals. When knife crime surges, the middle-class parent in Surbiton can tut-tut and continue to inveigh against ‘police brutality’, knowing their is very little chance their own precious darling will get caught up in a gang, have their life wrecked by drugs or injured in an injudicious stabbing. The crime epidemic has far more direct consequences on those who live in the inner cities whose lives, and whose children’s lives, are directly at risk.

This is a major reason why opposition to stop and search is concentrated amongst the middle-class progressive sector of society: it is a luxury belief, used to signify certain morals amongst people who know (subconsciously or otherwise) that the cost of this belief – increased violent crime – is overwhelmingly likely to be paid by others, not them. And it is a sign of the undue influence that this sector wields that opposition to stop and search is the policy of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, despite the fact that it clearly cuts crime and even though the polling is overwhelmingly favourable, including amongst their own voters:

Views on stop and search Support (%)Oppose (%)
Conservative voters933
Labour voters6125
Lib Dem voters6122

Other luxury beliefs

Other clear examples of luxury beliefs, where the strongest advocates amongst the rich and progressive middle classes but where the costs fall disproportionately upon the poorer and more disadvantaged include:

  • Opposition to phonics.
  • More broadly, opposition to teaching grammar, professional writing/speaking skills, basic maths in schools.
  • Opposition to stop and search.
  • More broadly, support for soft criminal justice and condemnation of the police.
  • Support for freedom of movement/open borders.
  • Support for large quantities of state money being spent on foreign aid(1).
  • ‘Trickle-down’ economics.
  • Opposition to marriage.
  • Support for organic farming.

This list is non-exhaustive. There are also other areas where the policies and trade-offs are more complex and so I am reluctant to say they are purely luxury beliefs – but where they certainly bear a lot of the same hallmarks as luxury beliefs, include:

  • Opposition to grammar schools.
  • Strong criticism of Israel
  • Support for sugar taxes, minimum alcohol prices and similar measures.

The rise of luxury beliefs, and their growing dominance in the progressive left, would seem to be a big reason for the large disenfranchised sector of the society – and one reason why conservative parties are increasingly gaining ground amongst the working classes. They are also a classic example of beliefs that people can hold to feel good, without them actually doing good – and it would always be worth asking who pays the cost of your own supposedly high-principled stances.

(1) What individuals choose to do with their own money is of course entirely their own affair.

2 thoughts on “On Luxury Beliefs

  1. Thanks Iain – good to challenge thinking on this! Maybe a good analogy is the (tall, confidence, male) secondary school teacher who is happy for pupils to call him by his first name and has a relaxed attitude to school rules. Which is fine for him, but makes life more difficult for the short, softly-spoken, female teacher who has to work harder to command respect, and is undermined by comparison to the popular male teacher.

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