|Marie de' Medici, who probably had her own problem of expensive tastes. By Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.|
When I first heard that there was such a thing as "the problem of expensive tastes," my first thought was "Uh oh, that must be me."
I've always had desires for nice things that seemed to know no bounds. As a child, I was keenly aware of the difference between Sears and Bloomingdales, and could easily distinguish the goods that came from each. Now, when I go to the mall, I often have a shopping paralysis: inevitably, when I look at reasonably priced stuff, I'm like "but that is crappy/ugly," and when I find a coat/bag/shoes/whatever that's acceptable, it's hundreds of dollars more than I have to spend.
I remember when I was a kid, sometimes well-meaning adults would ask, in a make-drive-time-quality-time sort of way, how much money I thought I'd want in order to be "satisfied." And I would think to myself, "Is this person stupid?" Even then I thought the question made no sense. No matter what you had, wouldn't always want more? I mean, even if you were just going to give it away, wouldn't more always be better?
Then I got older and learned that most people do not regard the question as nonsensical at all. Not only do they distinguish an amount of money they'd need to be satisfied, often, that amount was not all that much more than the money they had.
This was, and is, mystifying to me. I can't get inside the minds of people who answer this way. Don't they want beautiful expensive clothes, fancy cars, amazing homes, travel? Don't they want the nicest antique self-winding watch hand ever made? Don't they want a pied à terre in New York, another in Paris, a resort home in Italy and a ranch for occasional horse riding out in some other random lovely place?
That shit isn't cheap, you know. That's not an extra few thousand bucks a year we're talking about.
So what is up with that? Do people have no imagination -- they just can't think of good expensive stuff? Or do they think of these things and really not want them? I don't know, of course. But I'm guessing for a lot of people it's neither of these, and that what's really going on is that people don't want to seem greedy.
They picture "having a lot" as "having a lot more than other people," and -- correctly, I think -- intuit that there is something distressing about wanting to outstrip your fellows by stratospheric distances.
But having a lot is different form having more. The matter hinges on whether luxury, and thus luxury desires, are relative or absolute. I had to do a certain amount of soul-searching to determine for myself whether my own luxury desires were primarily relative -- as in, I wanted nicer things than other people -- or absolute -- as in, I want nice things.
I may be deluding myself, but I'm pretty sure I just want nice things. My needs are absolute, not relative. There are a few bits of evidence. I always enjoy being around other people who have beautiful clothes, bags, shows, cars, etc etc etc., and my enjoyment of the nice things I have seems to increase, rather than decrease, when more people have similar, or similarly nice, nice things.
My iPhone is a perfect example. I love my iPhone. In terms of being a nice things, it's one of the nicest. I love the exquisitely lovely green battery icon that pops up when the phone is charging. I love the little raindrops on the home screen. I love the fonts. And I can honestly say that my love for my iPhone is increased, rather than decreased, by the iPhone's omnipresence. This is an absolute, not a relative.
The classic "problem of expensive tastes" in philosophy has to do with the idea of fairness and equality in measuring well-being. If you think fairness and equality should measure how well a person is doing, rather than, say goods and resources, you run into the obvious problem: if X can't be happy without a Birkin bag and Y sets her sights on a more affordable (but still pricey!) Roots bag, then equality of well-being seems to mean things are fair and equal when X gets the Birkin. But that doesn't seem quite right.
Understood this way, "the problem of expensive tastes" is a problem that arises within a scheme in which the resources are fixed, or at least limited, and the question is the distribution. And it seems likely that all those people who mystified me by answering that to be "satisfied" they only needed a bit more in the way of worldly goods: if there's only a certain amount, perhaps it would be unseemly to want not only nice things but things much much much nicer than anyone else.
My interpretation would then be the unusual one, imagining as it does that I can have the nicest things, and everyone else can have the nicest things, all at the same time.
But though my interpretation may be unusual, I think it is apt, because there's an important moral difference between absolute luxury and relative luxury. There's nothing inherently wrong or creepy about desires for absolute luxury: these desires are completely compatible with real equality, even with everyone having the same. If you want absolute luxury, you want to have your fancy car and vacation home and horse ranch, but you also want everyone to have those things. If you want relative luxury, that's more morally complicated, because you want to have what others do not have. You want, in a sense, to make other people feel bad.
I wonder if an increase in relative luxury desires is something we are, depressingly, moving toward. I tried to confirm, by Googling, my memory of studies showing people really only wanted a bit more, and it wasn't easy. Because every study I found attempted to answer the completely different question of how much a person "really" needs to be happy (answer: about 75,000, in the US in 2012). The implication, I suppose, being that people think they need much much more.
Anyway, as a person who cares about absolute, not relative, luxury, I can tell you one important thing: desires for absolute luxury have to be desires for material qualities in and of themselves, and not desires for material qualities as symbols of something else. To want absolute luxury, you have to care about this bag, that scarf, this car, that home, and so on and so forth, to care about the particular qualities of the things you want and sometimes have, and not about what they represent. You can't want nice things as symbols of something else, like status.
And even though we're supposed to be so "materialistic" in this culture, I think we're not always so good at that. We buy symbols, not things; we buy as means not as ends; we buy for novelty and not for the long haul. Being truly materialistic would mean amassing things you love, and loving them for a good long time. Loving them not because they stand for or represent something else, but because they're beautiful in and of themselves.
That kind of materialism never begrudges the luxury items of one's fellows. It allows a love of luxury to be compatible with egalitarianism.
So am I the problem of expensive tastes? In an immediate sense, clearly yes: in a scheme of equality of happiness and well-being, I would cost more than my fellows. In another sense, though, no: I'd like everyone to have expensive tastes. And if they did, the problem would just go away.
Birkin bags for everyone, please!