Monday, January 10, 2005

The Lure Of Luxury

All political revolutions occur because of a sophisticated array of underlying conditions, but the spark that ignites them has more often than not been food. The French people got really excited two centuries ago because of a ruinous tax on salt, one of the basics of life. The spark that lit the Russian Revolution was the people’s cry for bread, that perfect metaphor for the life force itself. In Chinese life, and in China’s various revolutions, the equivalent menu item would be rice. Then of course there is the American Revolution, which began due to irreconcilable differences over a minuscule tax on tea.

Hey, wait a minute, are we Americans really part of the revolutionary pattern? Have recent university studies proven that the human body needs tea as it needs salt, or basic grain products? Hardly. While I myself could not live very well without tea, I admit that, ultimately, it is a luxury item. At the same time I don’t believe the core of economic freedom has to do with the logistical control of staples like salt, flour or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. We don’t need to actually possess or enjoy luxuries to be free, but we do need to have the option. It’s against our nature to allow any imperious arbiter to decide what is necessary for us and what isn’t. We want to decide ourselves, even if we reject the luxury. Further, as a cranky opinionated bunch, we often ridicule other people’s luxuries while defending our own as necessities.

Take a random group of American people, strand them on a tropical island, and they will most likely be fairly efficient in making sure basic needs are quickly met. It won’t take long before they progress from filling their bellies with anything handy to pestering those who have volunteered to do the cooking to begin improving the palatability of the mix. The same phenomenon will occur with clothing and shelter; they will inevitably spend time making aesthetic improvements to both. It will also not be very long before those with artistic, musical or dramatic talent will be drafted to entertain.

In America, even necessities are luxuries, in this sense: our abiding need for choice gives us nearly limitless variety. How many types of sugar, salt, flour, or beans can you find in the average supermarket? It is no happenstance that as we become richer, we support a growing market for specialty foods, not to mention four-dollar cups of coffee. We were a comfortable, well-fed people in 1775, and yet we took to arms to protect our own economic destiny. Given our antecedents, it is not surprising that today we gravitate toward luxuries both great and small. There are deep non-materialistic and spiritual currents in our society, to be sure, but even those of us who live the simple life would be hard put to reject the panoply of choice we’ve come to depend on. It is not a coincidence that the same society that supports scores of religious and spiritual traditions offers an even greater number of infused olive oils.

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