2012 February 27 Monday
Ostentatious Displays Of Wealth Immoral?

Chuck Rudd of Gucci Little Piggy wants to know why some Alt Right writers are finding common ground with lefties over the undesirability of ostentatious displays of wealth.

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan, who Iíve cracked on before, has a post conflating displays of wealth with immorality (h/t Mupetblast). Whatís increasingly clear to me is that there are some among the alt-right who would agree with Nolanís argument, and Iím interested in understanding why the line separating the alt-right and the left is becoming more and more blurry

In the comments of his post I explain why I see ostentatious displays of wealth as unhealthy for society.

Since people feel better or worse more due to their relative standing than their absolute standing I think ostentatious displays of wealth just make a small number of people happier at the expense of making a much larger number of people much less happy.

The ostentatious displays of wealth have multiple harmful effects:

- The resentment engendered toward the more productive lead to support of policies that work against market forces.

- The resentment makes people angrier.

- The resentment reduces the sense of common interest and common purpose.

Our problem is that communications and computer technology advances have made ostentatious displays of wealth more visible even as the amount of ostentation has increased due to rising inequality.

So I think it is rational to criticize ostentatious displays. The rich already have many status advantages. Really, they donít need to grab every status advantage available to them.

We need a society of high trust and a widespread feeling of common ground and shared interests. Ostentatious displays of wealth among an elite whose wealth has been growing for decades far faster than the overall amounts to rubbing salt into a wound. I morally disapprove of ostentation on the part of the upper classes. It is unnecessary cruelty.

Update: More expensive cars in a neighborhood reduce income satisfaction. If the wealthy hid their wealth people would be less dissatisfied by how much money they make.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 February 27 09:10 PM  Human Nature Status


Comments
Aurelius said at February 27, 2012 11:26 PM:

Here's a recent article from the Wall Street Journal about the return of large estates, even as the size of the average home continues to shrink (from 2,521 sq ft in 2007 to 2,392 in 2010). The article mentions projects like the homes of Anthony Pritzker (49,300 s.f.), Cliff Asness (25,900), Lee Weinstein (31,500), Doug Bernstein (30,000), Jim Ellis (25,00)#, Gene Pretti (50,000), quarterback Tom Brady (18,300), and a Saudi prince (70,000 s.f. downsized from the original 85,000).

Another ominous comment in the article, this: "These days, lower labor costs in some areas can mean quicker turnaround times or better value." In other words, more rich people paying the poor even less. Declining wages are the inevitable (and intended) result of the open borders insanity embraced by BOTH parties.

However, I think the need for flashy clothes and cars (or carriages) has diminshed over the last few centuries as a result of technology. 300 years ago few people would recognize you as a man of importance if you didn't have the fancy carriage and ostentatious clothing to signal to them your rank.

Will the people once again storm the palaces? One can only hope.

Sgt. Joe Friday said at February 28, 2012 2:16 PM:

Going overboard on the peacocking is boorish and in poor taste, but it's not immoral.

Anyway, there are entire ethnic groups and cultures where ostentation is considered normal behavior for people who have money, even it it's old money. There is a school of thought that well-to-do people in poorer cultures (e.g. Latin America) are much more likely to peacock, as a way of distancing themselves from the lower classes, whereas here in America, even wealthy people will claim that they are middle class.

bbartlog said at February 28, 2012 7:08 PM:

Aside from the resentment-based arguments, I'd argue that it's also directly useful if the very wealthy can be encouraged to do something socially useful with their wealth (instead of spending it on solid gold bathtubs, Bugattis or what have you). Carnegie built some nice libraries.

eggwhite said at February 29, 2012 4:29 PM:

Well, the rich could secure their legacy by improving the United States for generations to come. They could donate to organizations that support reasonable immigration standards, for example. In addition, they could provide funds to think tanks that challenge the destructive ideas that led to the last 50 years of failed social policy. In short, they could preserve the best of America, attempting to make that shining image of a free people reaching for the moon a reality for their unborn grandchildren.

Or they could just spend it on some gaudy yacht.

Reym said at February 29, 2012 11:49 PM:

There's also a compelling argument that the wealth many of the super-wealthy enjoy is unproductive, and in fact distracting, to the purpose of the jobs they are being paid to perform (See: Dan Ariely Upside of Irrationality). Even though I am very much a conservative and believe in generally libertarian governing principles, I think there's an argument to be made that there ought to be salary caps (or something along those lines. I don't presume to know a best course of action).

Kent Gatewood said at March 1, 2012 7:12 AM:

I spend about $150 a year for clothes and shoes.

Should we benchmark off me?

RNoble said at March 1, 2012 7:59 PM:

The FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) grows year on year and outpaces actual productivity. Ostentatious displays of wealth among the productive have historically been tolerated by Americans because they felt their society was fundamentally fair.

However, if our society has slipped past federalist democracy and into a post industrial "oligarchy" where financialization schemes siphon wealth, then a large number of wealthy are no better than robbers. The bank bailouts and saving the "bond holders" has been the biggest transfer of wealth in history.

Aristotle describes the movement of society from Democracy to Plutocracy to Oligarchy, and from there to Tyrant Kings. The tyrants are the super rich oligarchs who promise the population they will become part of their "family" in the fight against the other oligarchs. To do this the Tryants become Kings and promise to wipe out debts. During Wars, the King's promise further release from debt bondage, and the population slips back into democracy. The Magna Carta document shows this final stage in action.

Growing debts and the vectoring of wealth away from productive "consumption" causes debt deflation. That money vectors to banks, and ultimately to the creators of money at the top of the financial pyramid. Monopolists and their fellow travelers in real estate make sure that fiscal policy benefits them, such that taxes tend to land on labor. This allows more of the peoples productive output to be pledged to land and new bank loans.

RNoble said at March 1, 2012 8:00 PM:

The FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) grows year on year and outpaces actual productivity. Ostentatious displays of wealth among the productive have historically been tolerated by Americans because they felt their society was fundamentally fair.

However, if our society has slipped past federalist democracy and into a post industrial "oligarchy" where financialization schemes siphon wealth, then a large number of wealthy are no better than robbers. The bank bailouts and saving the "bond holders" has been the biggest transfer of wealth in history.

Aristotle describes the movement of society from Democracy to Plutocracy to Oligarchy, and from there to Tyrant Kings. The tyrants are the super rich oligarchs who promise the population they will become part of their "family" in the fight against the other oligarchs. To do this the Tryants become Kings and promise to wipe out debts. During Wars, the King's promise further release from debt bondage, and the population slips back into democracy. The Magna Carta document shows this final stage in action.

Growing debts and the vectoring of wealth away from productive "consumption" causes debt deflation. That money vectors to banks, and ultimately to the creators of money at the top of the financial pyramid. Monopolists and their fellow travelers in real estate make sure that fiscal policy benefits them, such that taxes tend to land on labor. This allows more of the peoples productive output to be pledged to land and new bank loans.

Aurelius said at March 1, 2012 9:53 PM:

Conspicuous consumption is tolerated when people feel like things are ultimately getting better for all (or most), and that the money spent by the rich has been earned, for the most part, ethically. When those conditions do not hold, expect to see complaints - or worse. Although wealth isn't increasing for the middle class in absolute terms, technology is making people feel better off - cell phones, the internet, medicines, etc. The wealthy buy off the poor with vast government handouts. Those in the middle who try to get ahead, who want to climb the ladder, who want to live better than what welfare will give them become the despised enemies of both the poor and the rich. SO long as rich liberals keep the poor fed, there will be no one to storm their palaces. And the middle class will keep having to take it in the you-know-what.

Mike Quinlan said at March 2, 2012 6:34 AM:

Its obviously all about appearances when the issue is about the morality of wealth displays, rather than the actual distribution of wealth in our society. To me its not only a bad joke but a rather sad comment on reality when your notion of improving social relations is a call for the oligarchs to maintain the illusions that cement their privilege and power.
Its reassuring to me that at least on some levels, there exists people who do realize how tenuous the present social hierarchy actually is.

Mthson said at March 2, 2012 10:09 AM:

Aurelius said: "The size of the average home continues to shrink."

Those statistics derive from the 80 million people from less skilled societies that the US added since 1970, right?

Wolf-Dog said at March 2, 2012 4:58 PM:

Personally I would not enjoy ostentation in any situation, not just within the context of wealth.

But it seems to me that the reason a lot of people think that ostentatious display of wealth is specifically immoral, is in fact because of the feeling that accumulating disproportionate wealth (in comparison to others) might be immoral... There is the possibility that even when such disproportionate wealth is legally obtained, it is perhaps done at the expense of others.

Otherwise WHY should it be immoral to display of wealth in the presence of those who don't have it? It should NOT be immoral to do so, unless, of course, there is something wrong with the acquisition of excess relative wealth. After all, jealousy is immoral in the first place, and if the wealth were acquired without impeding the well-being of others, then displaying this wealth should not be a bad thing.

Dan Morgan said at March 4, 2012 6:35 PM:

"I morally disapprove of ostentation on the part of the upper classes."

So no one should buy Lamborghinis and Ferraris anymore? And no one should live in the fine old mansions of the big cities? And the high-end restaurants are to be avoided?

The higher end cars and old mansions set the standard for fine design and beauty. The food at the top restaurants sets the standards for how enjoyable food can be.

Most houses in America are ugly, cars are dull and utilitarian, and the food is so so. I have a hard time morally disapproving of people with money wanting to buy and use the finer things out there.

ASPIRANT said at March 4, 2012 8:17 PM:

@Dan Morgan:
You seem to think you're talking to a socialist. If you re-read the article, you'll understand that he's saying that consumption is bad when the purpose is to show it off to those who can't get it.

Morality aside, conspicuous consumption, or lording your status over others, must have some kind of a survival benefit, or else it wouldn't be such a basic instinct. Even children like to show off new toys that the others' parents could never afford.

Humanity seems predestined to develop large gaps between the poor and wealthy, and our behavior seems to cement it so nothing ever changes. I wonder if humanity has evolved in this way because it affords almost eusocial stability and cohesion, in a way that true equality could not?

Wolf-Dog said at March 4, 2012 11:43 PM:

"Morality aside, conspicuous consumption, or lording your status over others, must have some kind of a survival benefit, or else it wouldn't be such a basic instinct. Even children like to show off new toys that the others' parents could never afford."
------------------------------------------------------

Excellent point. This is a very insightful observation. Indeed, some of the conspicuous consumption is certainly a psychological ritual of victory celebration. Centuries ago, the winning tribe that took over the land and property of the losing tribe, often celebrated with a party in order to internalize the fact that the newly acquired land and property will insure their future survival and procreation (at the expense of the defeated tribe that lost everything.)

But nevertheless, the question is not so much whether ostentatious consumption is evil, but whether the disproportionate acquisition of wealth is at the expense of others.

Check it Out said at March 5, 2012 6:54 PM:

"Ostentatious Displays Of Wealth Immoral?"

I don't know if it's immoral, but it sure is insulting.

Check it Out said at March 5, 2012 7:01 PM:

"So no one should buy Lamborghinis and Ferraris anymore? And no one should live in the fine old mansions of the big cities? And the high-end restaurants are to be avoided?"

If only a very few can have access to that, YES, no one should buy Lamborghinis, Ferraris, dine in the high-end restaurants and live in the fine old mansions.

If everybody could have access to that, NO.

I'm in favor of everybody having access to abundance, since it is not impossible. It just requires a fundamental change in the economic system.

Randall Parker said at March 6, 2012 8:54 PM:

Aurelius,

I'd like to see trends in home size as a function of IQ.

Kent Gatewood,

Why so little on clothes and shoes?

I want young women to wear nicer clothes btw. I'm sick of frumpy sweatshirts, sweat pants, blue jeans, and the like.

Dan Morgan,

A society with less resentment and less feeling of inferiority is a healthier society.

A large house isn't necessarily any less ugly than a small house. Taste and size are different concepts.

Mike Quinlan,

I think the health of our society is far from assured. This is what makes me conservative: the understanding that we can't take for granted the better things about our society. We've already lost some of those better things. We stand to lose more.

Check it Out,

No, we can't all have access to abundance.

Check it Out said at March 8, 2012 4:15 PM:

"No, we can't all have access to abundance."

Sure we can. In fact it's surprising why shouldn't we all have access to abundance. One man's labor can produce hundreds of times what he eats. Nine or ten constructors can build many times the number of houses they can live in; build many times the number of universities their kids can study in. A few tens of workers in a textile factory can produce millions of clothes. A few hundreds of machines all over the world can assemble more cars than you and I could drive. There's no reason why anybody on the planet should go hungry for natural reasons.

"No, we can't all have access to abundance."

Why? because we're too many? There still was lack hundreds of years ago when humans were few. I'm not sure that 7 billion humans on this planet has got to be a problem instead of a mighty productive force that works for everybody.

We continue to cling to that dogma without really considering if it's even true. Even the dogma of God's existance has not been proven right.

http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/praiseidleness.htm

Randall Parker said at March 10, 2012 8:47 PM:

Not having anyone go hungry could be achieved by lowering the living standards of others. I do not see what this has to do with having abundance for all.

One does not need dogma to argue that we are hitting limits to growth. Average ore concentrations for just about every harvested ore are declining. Fresh water aquifers are getting depleted. Fisheries are getting depleted. Oil fields are getting depleted.

Check it Out said at March 14, 2012 6:01 PM:

"Not having anyone go hungry could be achieved by lowering the living standards of others. I do not see what this has to do with having abundance for all."

Of course you don't. You know only what you are used to believing.

Zamman said at March 15, 2012 4:13 PM:

"One does not need dogma to argue that we are hitting limits to growth"

I don't know if we all can have access to abundance. It's really hard for me to see how that could come about, but on the other hand, I've been hearing that we are hitting limits to growth for many years now. We're still here. The world's still here.

For 20, 30, 40 years, people have been saying that we're running out of water, that there's no more productive land, that there's no more oil. I'm starting to believe that's all politics and propaganda lies.

So who knows, maybe it is possible for everybody to have more with less work, but a radical change in our institutions would be needed.


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