The Virtues of Luxury

As noted in an earlier post, Samuel Johnson shared some of Edmund Burke’s assumptions about the need for limited government and checks and balances. Likewise we find parallels between the great London author and his other contemporary, Adam Smith. The two men were divided on religion. Johnson was devout Anglican and Smith was likely an atheist. That said, the following comments (from Boswell’s Life of Johnson) could come right out of the writings of Smith or any other free market proponent:

Many things which are false are transmitted from book to book, and gain credit in the world. One of these is the cry against the evil of luxury. Now the truth is, that luxury produces much good…. A man gives half a guinea for a dish of green peas. How much gardening does this occasion? how many labourers must the competition to have such things early in the market, keep in employment? You will hear it said, very gravely, Why was not the half-guinea, thus spent in luxury, given to the poor? To how many might it have afforded a good meal. Alas! has it not gone to the industrious poor, whom it is better to support than the idle poor? You are much surer that you are doing good when you pay money to those who work, as the recompence of their labour, than when you give money merely in charity. Suppose the ancient luxury of a dish of peacock’s brains were to be revived, how many carcases would be left to the poor at a cheap rate: and as to the rout that is made about people who are ruined by extravagance, it is no matter to the nation that some individuals suffer.

Johnson understood the problem of subsidizing large segments of the population. Discernment is required even among private individuals, but the issue is more problematic when the state gets involved. Politicians spoil the idle poor on a vaster scale (as a form of vote-buying) at the expense of the working population. While not oblivious to the potential moral pitfalls of increased luxury, Johnson clearly felt that those were individual choices and that the evils of forced austerity and economic micromanagement were far worse. All of these comments fly in the face of modern cant about the supposed iniquities of wealth. But if individuals prefer policies that foster resentment and envy rather than prosperity, then they can be sure that luxury will decrease… and the poor will remain on welfare.

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