by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Varad Mehta writes at National Review Online about the unwelcome return of a regrettable piece of our past.
Air conditioning isn’t the only thing people are being urged to give up for a better life. An array of commentators, predominantly on the left, have been imploring their compatriots to forswear not only air conditioning but cars, meat, soda, and even children. While air conditioning and its “accomplices” are usually charged separately, it’s not difficult to discern a common reasoning behind the indictments. I don’t mean environmentalism, either, though that’s part of it. Rather, all are driven by the conviction that the items in question are luxuries, things people don’t need — and, because they aren’t needed, it is proper to beseech (and ultimately compel?) others to surrender them.
There are two ways to get people to give up goods society doesn’t want them to have: making them more expensive and banning them. The records of both can charitably be described as mixed. Nevertheless, the Left has been clear that it is open to both approaches to reduce the presence of these “bads.” The Left does have historical precedent on its side. For most of history, luxury items were subject not only to moral and social but also legal sanction. For most. But not all, and there’s the rub. For the Left’s solution to the perceived ills of air conditioning etc. is to revive sumptuary laws — a solution that, to be viable, requires turning the consumption of luxury goods back into a social problem, something it hasn’t been considered for 250 years.
The moral stigma that once attached to the idea of luxury has been effaced from the West’s cultural memory. (Look at some advertising if you don’t believe me.) Yet until recently, most societies regulated the purchase of luxury goods. They did so via sumptuary laws, as laws restricting personal expenditure are known. Sumptuary laws don’t outlaw the sale of certain goods; rather, they outlaw their purchase by certain people. The goods that can’t be purchased are “luxuries,” and the people who aren’t allowed to buy them are the poor. Sumptuary laws, write the scholars Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, “confine the consumption of specific commodities to the elites,” thus “enforc[ing] rigid status structures.” Different societies defined luxury differently, but whatever it was, they all thought it was something the poor shouldn’t have.
This notion should surprise no one who has considered the ties between progressive policies and government coercion.