Alberto Mingardi  

Two cheers for the tasteless

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Does Tamara Ecclestone prompt "a rethink of capitalism"? So writes the Philosopher's Mail, a website that aims to "prove genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues".
Nowadays, rich people easily raise to the status of global celebrities just because they are, well, rich. The news world is always hungry for gossip, and the flamboyant lives of the Tamara Ecclestones of this world drive traffic to websites and help in filling newspapers' pages. I would add that there is a growing perception that the jet set is no longer what is used to be. Once upon a time it had its narrators, such as Somerset Maugham or Gore Vidal in his memoirs "Palimpsest". The rich and glamorous had their dirty secrets - but they used to be, well, secrets. Once upon a time, limited information was available on the private lives of the famous and powerful. That is no longer the case, and the weirder a celebrity acts, the more news coverage she gets.
This is to say that I am not sure that Ms. Ecclestone and her ilk are now more immoderate than their predecessors: but certainly we are more knowledgeable, to the minutest detail, of their loves, shopping, and habits.
This is, to the best of my understanding, the frame in which we may ponder what The Philosophers' Mail writes:

The deep problem of Capitalism is not so much that it leads to private wealth, but that it leaves it entirely to chance whether people do wonderful things with their advantages - or concentrate on motorised racks for their shoes.
In the 15th century, Lorenzo di Medici funded the Renaissance. In the 1920's, Catherine Drexel founded Xavier University in New Orleans, which played a major role in developing a black professional middle-class, with incalculable benefits to the US. In the 1940's, William Volker, who made a fortune selling household furnishings, funded a number of US think-tanks that eventually made a great contribution to the peaceful and successful ending of the cold-war. These were grand ambitions commensurate to extraordinary means. They also remain the sharp exceptions.
Perhaps a lot of the resentment against the rich is really a way of being justifiably angry, not at their money, but at their lack of purpose and imagination. (...) Arguments in favour of redistribution and against inequality are at least in part complaints about wasted opportunities.

Now, lots of people find the rich tasteless--and perhaps with good reason. This happens very frequently to intellectuals, who (they think) have better taste than most people. To be fair, intellectuals find the great unwashed pretty tasteless too. In The Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises argued that they very often misinterpret capitalism for being responsible for the low taste of the masses, and thus become inveterate critics of the market system: "Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.".
Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make: but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items (as "the poor" tend to prefer the collected works of Stan Lee to Marcel Proust).
Those who criticize the low tastes of the rich do instead maintain they do not deserve the money they had, and they criticize capitalism for rewarding culturally worthless people.
I'd say this is an argument that has very little to do with "redistribution and inequality", unless you believe redistribution should work from the tasteless to the tasteful. I am sure that Tamara Ecclestone's wedding cake didn't bake itself, that her new luxury Range Rover SUV did not assemble itself, and that "her large house in Kensington Palace Garden" did not refit itself either. The profligate spending by Tamara is a great opportunity for many to make their living. Her largess in using her freedom to choose, helps others in making use of their "freedom to be chosen"--i.e., it enables them to provide services, make money, grow their kids, buy a little nice summer house, and choose between spending a night at the opera or watching "A Night at the Opera".


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Radford Neal writes:

The last paragraph seems like a variant of the broken windows fallacy. Sure, spending by the rich on elaborate wedding cakes provides employment for others. But the others would be even better off if they were employed doing something like cleaning up garbage in local parks - they would get both their wages and a better park to visit.

I think any defense of letting the rich spend their money on tasteless things of no wider social utility has be based on the virtue of allowing individuals autonomy, regardless of whether you think they are using it wisely.

Hazel Meade writes:

Does anyone not sense the irony in a publication that derives it's income from celebrity gossip publishing the comment above?

JKB writes:

Ah, socialism, the philosophy of failure. Unable to earn money as the vacuous rich do, the socialist questions the system. But their viewpoint is stunted. Perhaps the pop celebrity's skill is only in pooling monies from a multitude of sources. But just because they don't top down directly support some "worthy" causes, doesn't mean they aren't responsible for a lot of "worthy" things being done.

Sure, they're purchases provide a living for all those who meet their "tasteless" desires. But it is not unreasonable to guess that those service providers do more than just get buy. The excess they earn is then available for them to support a wider selection of causes, although in smaller chunks. Or pursue more tasteful or worthy projects. I met a marine biologist from LA, who to support his research habit had a business of taking care of rich people's aquariums, I remember Barbra Streisand being mentioned, in the off season. Marine biology being a very poor career unless you had tenure or a position at a gov't lab. And that doesn't include the thousands who make money off the celebrity's brand via the media circus and advertising.

We should note that those with good ideas and talent but short on money will migrate to providing services, perhaps for tasteless desires, to the wealthy in order to earn profits in a large enough chunk to fund their ideas. The time involved in acquiring small bits of monies directly from the less wealthy would severely limit the time capital available to invest in their project.


Since the socialist grieves at the unequal distribution of material wealth, and regards a better distribution as essential to the reformation of society, one is obliged to ask at once why the socialist does not himself set to work and accumulate wealth as well as others? In our country there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cases where men have begun with nothing and accumulated a competence. Why do not the socialists do the same? If material wealth is the cure-all, why not go in at once and get it? The answer is not far to seek. They claim that they have no chance of success in the competitive struggle with others. They wish wealth, but they do not possess the bourgeois virtues necessary for its acquisition under existing conditions. Therefore, they wish to rearrange society so that those who do not now have the industrial qualities may obtain wealth as well as those who do have them. Of course, they do not explain who is to produce the wealth they are to share, and which they are incompetent to produce. That is supposedly an insignificant detail. However this may be, the central point in the question is this: having admitted their failure to achieve success in accumulating material wealth in a competitive struggle open freely to all, they propose the abolition of free competition. State control is to take its place. Here we have socialism confessedly as a philosophy of failure. Just to the extent that the socialists insist on their inability to accumulate as much wealth as others, under existing conditions, they are unconsciously advertising their own industrial inefficiency. They clamor for a philosophy of failure -- for a system in which they shall be relieved from the inevitable results of their relative inferiority in obtaining the material means which they regard as essential to their idealistic ends.

"Socialism a Philosophy of Failure", Laughlin, J.L., Scribner's magazine, 1909

Motoko writes:

There's no marginal employment advantage to the rich purchasing frivolous consumption goods in place of public works. Either way, they're paying people to work. I'm not saying I agree with the author's sentiment, but it's certainly true that some people would be better off if the rich prioritized charitable investment over personal baubles.

... Although this line of complaint would look very silly if it were highlighted just how little the rich burn on consumption as a proportion of their total income.

...the others would be even better off if they were employed doing something like cleaning up garbage in local parks - they would get both their wages and a better park to visit.

How can you possibly know that? I.e., how do you know the comparative value the cake bakers put on visiting a clean park v. their working indoors, without heavy lifting?

BZ writes:

I couldn't get past the "we already know what capitalism does to the poor" quip.

libertarian jerry writes:

Socialism is a failed economic system based on coveting and envy. Socialism usually comes into being with the efforts of "useful idiots" who lay the social and political foundation that is exploited by demagogues and power seekers. In the end real socialism,not the fictional world of dreamers,but the reality of history ends up with a society of rulers and the ruled. Of course socialists will forever tell you that is not what "real" socialism is about. In the end,if people believe in a collectivist society nothing should stop them from having a commune,kibutz or coop. Its just when they want to use the power of the state (the power of a monopoly on violence) to force me into or to pay for their socialist society that I have an argument with. In the end,from the historical evidence,capitalism (or more precisely the free market) besides all its warts is the best economic system for the most people and has done more to raise the standards of living for the average person then all the socialist systems ever conceived.

Roger McKinney writes:

The author wrote:

We're so focused on what Capitalism does to the poor, we tend to forget to study with sufficient rigour what it does to those it makes rich.

It reveals the assumption that we're all born good and society turns us bad. That's an old atheist fabrication. The Christian doctrine of original sin is easily verifiable. We are born with a tendency toward evil. Socialization through parenting, Church, and school can make a difference, but people have a free will and can choose to be whatever they want to be. Society doesn't make anyone; the choices of individuals make society. Bad taste conspicuous consumption existed long before capitalism.

The author just advertises envy. Journalists and other socialists think they should be rich because they are the smartest and have the best intentions.

James D. writes:

Here are the points that I think this article, and many other critics, are clearing missing:

"The entire point of Capitalism is to free people to make money." - No, the point of capitalism is to allow people to decide for themselves how to better themselves by bettering others. They may do so by owning or working at a bakery, automotive service center, bank, etc.

"She is what success looks like for Capitalism."
- No, her father is what success looks like for capitalism. He created an industry that has benefited others. If it didn't benefit them then why would they have decided to direct billions of pounds into his pockets? And billions of pounds were also directed into the pockets of all those who work for the Formula One race teams, tracks, suppliers, etc.

"Perhaps a lot of the resentment against the rich is really a way of being justifiably angry, not at their money, but at their lack of purpose and imagination." - Those billions of pounds did not fall out of the sky. They were the value others placed on the industry that Bernie Ecclestone created, a value measured in billions of pounds. Creating an industry that is valued to that extent by that many people requires plenty of purpose and imagination. Or does it really take no purpose and imagination to create Formula One, Sears, Microsoft, Apple, Walmart, Boeing, Ford, Caterpillar, COSTCO, etc.

"...seeing her waste her fortune reassures us that it was never worth accumulating in the first place." - That which is seen: an heir wasting the billions of pounds left to her by her father who decided that the best way for him to better himself was to better others by creating the Formula One industry. That which is not seen: all of the people who exchanged their scarce resource (money or time or knowledge or labor or...) in exchange for something worth more to them (money or entertainment or knowledge or...) AND every thing they did with whatever they obtained through that transaction.

Pajser writes:

The world should be used for common good, as much as possible. It is not easy to find the best possible distribution, but wasteful indulgence beyond usual level is bad, even evil behavior.

LD Bottorff writes:

Historically, things that were once reserved for the rich become common to the middle class then available to the masses. The cars available today have features that I considered luxury items a few years ago. Go back a few generations, and the cars themselves were luxury items. The music, choice of foods, housing options, entertainment options that are available to the masses today were simply not available a few years ago.

I don't judge Tamara Ecclestone. She has a lot of money to spend. I have a lot of time to spend. I don't know that what I do with my time is any less wasteful than what she does with her money.

Alberto Mingardi writes:

Thanks for the many interesting comments. I do thank LD Bottorff ("Historically, things that were once reserved for the rich become common to the middle class then available to the masses") and James D., for having said much better something I wanted to say myself.
Radford Neal suggests that the right to spend your money stupidly needs to be defended because, well, if you're free you're also free to spend your money stupidly. I do certainly agree.
I still don't see, however, in what sense what I wrote reminded you of the broken window fallacy. The point of the broken window fallacy is that you 'see' wealth being produced, but, wasn't the window broken, those resources will go to fund something else. Here no window is broken.
I frankly do not know whether "the others would be even better off if they were employed doing something like cleaning up garbage in local parks". It seems to me that the demand for more extravagant things creates opportunities for people to make a living by satisfying such demands. Somehow, our "freedom to be chosen" increase: some people may actually be happier because they are working as a dog sitter, instead of collecting garbage in a park.

Evan writes:

This is an aside from the main article, but I am actually going to dispute the Mises' quote that:

"Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala.
I think that, as society has become enriched with the wealth that capitalism has produced, people have become smarter, more tasteful, and more discerning. And the market has responded to this demand by releasing smarter, more sophisticated forms of entertainment.

Look at, for instance, sitcoms that were released in the past vs. now. The amount of intelligence and cultural literacy necessary to appreciate the humor in a show like "Community," "Family Guy," or "The Big Bang Theory" is far greater than what you need to appreciate "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Andy Griffith Show."

Action movies are another example. Modern ones tend to feature highly intelligent antagonists with incredibly complex detailed plans. Such bad guys weren't unheard of in earlier decades, but they weren't as common as more straightforward, venal villains.

Or how about comic books, as alluded to in the OP? I think that the comic books of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are every bit as intellectually profound as the works of Proust. And Stan Lee could sometimes pull off some pretty deep stuff too.

I think part of the reason we tend to think taste is lower than before is that we confuse taste with decorum. I would regard someone to have good taste if they fully appreciate cultural goods that require a large amount of intelligence to appreciate; whereas someone has good decorum if they are unable to appreciate cultural goods that contain jokes involving sex and poop. Needless to say, people with true taste are the sort of people we should strive to be, whereas people with decorum are annoying killjoys we should avoid.

Of course, there are still stupid, tasteless things in existence, like celebrity gossip. But I think the percentage of tasteful stuff being produced has actually gone up. And I think we can blame capitalism for this. The wealth it has produced has given people time and opportunity to develop their intellects as never before.

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