Sumptuary laws (from Latin sūmptuāriae lēgēs) are laws that try to regulate consumption. Black's Law Dictionary defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc." Historically, they were intended to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures, often depending on a person's social rank.

Sumptuary laws in Medieval England , aimed at keeping the main population dressed according to their "station", do not begin until the later 13th century. These included non-lords from wearing pointy shoes and velvet, which were status symbols of the rich.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a 1634 prohibition deemed that only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles. After a few decades, the law was being widely defied. By 1651, flouting of the rules causes the leadership to issue a new strongly worded regulation to the populace again.

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Thanks for doing this because your idea of luxury beliefs is so important to conversations about social justice written in language so arcane you need a PhD to decipher it (perfect example of LBs). I've taught the essay in my First Year Seminar and upper-level English courses at a small liberal arts college the last couple of years with much success.

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While I agree with your points, I think this just calls for further disaggregation of what it means to be 'upper class' and what constitutes 'status', and a more developed discussion on status perception.

Physical items played and continue to play a role in status perception, but their role is diminishing. There was a paper on the role physical items play in status perception that I read a couple years ago, which argued that, if the importance of items to calculating status is plotted on the Y axis, and socio-economic status is on the X axis, the curve will follow a U-shape. Think of flat screen TVs in the lower strata of society and expensive pieces of art for the upper class. Cars are an interesting case. I posit that, as we supplement initial personality perception with online presence, showcasing beliefs is complementary to financial status. While in the past one might have been able to make a quick judgement of people based on physical features, clothing, items (remember white earphones? It meant you could afford an iPod), the first exchange of names and interests is followed by swapping Instagram handles, which is an ideal way of seeing the lifestyle the given person aspires to be living. A quick check of their Twitter (or Parler, or Truth, or Mastodon) and uncertainty is further reduced. If the Twitter bio revolves around identity politics, the Instagram profile displays photos of holidays and protests, it is easier to ascertain that the individual in question probably votes Democrat and is middle to upper-class. If their content revolves around posing with cars and tweeting about Anthony Fauci or vaccine skepticism, likely political preferences and socio-economic status assumptions swing the other way. Items and beliefs constitute and both play into status.

This is why I am not sure that 'luxury beliefs' is the right expression because the true luxury is the ability to countersignal. Work with the assumption that we can separate the upper class into two distinct groups - aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Aristocracy prides itself on status indicators such as name, taste, family lineage and land ownership, as well as education, whereas the bourgeoisie will try to replicate those as closely as they possibly can but will always fail to do so. You will never see a member of the aristocracy wearing an expensive piece of clothing that displays the brand name because they do not need to - they derive status from the previously mentioned indicators. The nouveau riche will wear Hermes and other brands and will visibly display their logos to signal wealth, but they cannot afford to countersignal because they are fundamentally anxious about their status, whereas the real aristocracy might be lacking liquid funds but their status markers are more difficult to change. I wouldn't be able to make the same separation or analysis of the working class but I imagine that the separation lies between those who accept their status as unchangeable and those who aspire for social mobility.

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I love your writing style Rob. And this topic - the Murray "coming apart" story - is at the top of my list for almost everything. Saving it in my archives.

From a current perspective for what is broken and what is working, I am developing a sense that our Great Experiment might have just been a fortunate historical success. That saying "hard times create strong men that create good times that create weak men that create hard times"... it seems that maybe this is an unavoidable cycle. The US fell on hard times during the Gilded Age... a repeat of what we seem to be experiencing today. The wars and the Great Depression knocked back the elites. Maybe we need that again.

Other than that, I do see some shift in identifying those holding modern luxury beliefs (i.e. woke) as being damaged. I think there is a possibility going forward that these people suffer economically and thus learn some lesson. I don't remember the state, but a recent Republican governor issued an order to remove the college education requirement for many of the government jobs in his state. I also know that corporate hiring managers have begun to ask questions that help identify employees made toxic by this stuff to help prevent them from infecting the workplace. If we can get back to a place where social status was aligned with productive contribution to the economy or society and not just genuflecting over the current radical left ideological trend...

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I challenge the premise that beliefs are the new markers of status for the affluent, at least for those who have children. In my experience, where you live and where you send your children to school are far more important markers of status than beliefs are.

it may be that we are both right in that you are writing about people in their late teens and twenties, and I am writing about people who are thirty or older. (I'm sixty and my youngest child is 29, so this difference may be a function of who I spend my time with).

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I recognize the world in this article. I have 4 children in middle and high school, 3 in public, in a very diverse purple county, in what is considered to be the best feeder system. Pre covid most of us (except for the white Protestants/Catholics, Ukranian/Russians, and Chinese) were all classically liberal democrats. Almost everyone is, if not from somewhere else than married to an expat so I suspect we might be the very bottom rung/worker bees of the global elite.

I have since watched my very intelligent democratic friends torture many of their classically liberal beliefs They still believe in the ACLU, I now believe the real book banning scandal is librarian associations not allowing Abigail Shrier's book to be carried. My Ukranian/Russian friends who were good young pioneers growing up are now worried that history is repeating itself. I grew up in an evangelical household, and I recognize the concept of original sin no matter if in Genesis or a BLM article in the NYT. But my very politically astute democratic friends really don't want to know what lies beyond the main stream media. The Asians believe in affirmative action in colleges, even while applying to send their kids. They don't know if they want to go on without open borders. Incidentally many of their kids are very depressed about "the world today".

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Perhaps framing those status symbols as mutually exclusive is confusing. Where you live can certainly infer economic means, as can other possessions, as well as where you can send your kids to school. But I do think that the inner yearning for being perceived as “elite” subconsciously compels many to identify themselves in new, distinctive forms. Narcissistic traits are really not a matter of overly high self-esteem, rather the endless need to be seen as special is rooted in a sense of self whose own satisfaction, or self-acceptability, can only be experienced from the admiration, or notoriety, perceived in the reactions of others. And there is no actual “arrival” to the quest. The compulsion to accomplish another shot of recognition as special is perpetual. I would add a characteristic necessary to “luxury beliefs”, and that would be that they must be attention-getting. And “controversy” is an easier qualifier to exploit than usefulness. It’s more difficult to come up with or take part in proffering a belief or position that truly offers benefits to humanity.

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I’m currently taking a class on Korean history on my way to formally attempting to learn the language and find many parallels of your teachings on status with what Koreans have experienced historically. The penalty for challenging status in Joseon was death or exile. I still have a hard time fathoming that Japan annexed Korea for 35 years, but the upper Yangban class seemed to align with the Japanese wanting to protect their status making it impossible for Koreans to break free on their own.

Today, people don’t physically die, but one look at the ideological conformity of Hollywood shows that they work the same way the masses were suppressed in the past. I love The 1975 and went to their recent concert which is on Amazon Prime. I knew the lead singer was very much on the left, but during the concert he lamented the loss of the meaning of masculinity and did pushups in front of a TV playing The Ben Shapiro show. It was so odd, I googled him and found he was “cancelled” for tweeting something wrong about the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and deleted his Twitter account. If he, one of the most ardent conformists of leftist ideology had the mob after him, it makes me wonder about the future trajectory of luxury beliefs as a status symbol. Will the specific nature of luxury beliefs separate the wheat from the chaff or will the nit-picking eliminate too many powerful players and burn up the field?

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Jan 29, 2023·edited Jan 29, 2023

One topic Rob that I think you could explore in your writings is that the socially constructed nature of status.

What do I mean by this? Well it seems when most people talk about status, they talk about its "universal" inputs: money, education, influence, celebrity.

But there is a very "local" nature of status as well. People in educated social circles will value education; by contrast, people in uneducated circles may well look down on and discourage education. Similarly, people in less materialistic societies and subcultures will look down on those who seek to accrue more wealth. This is to say that each subculture has its own values hierarchy.

You can be high-status in your subculture, but the moment you leave it and go to Burning Man, you may find you are low-status. So I wonder: what is the values hierarchy of this particular subculture? Who is high-status? Is it the most braggadocious person, or by contrast, the most self-effacing one? The most punctilious, or the most contrarian? I find subculture leaders, whether alive or dead, tend to exemplify this "heroic archetype" which manifests as the blueprint for the rest of the subculture.

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I like the examples you have given about luxury beliefs, helpful to understand the concept. Could you give more examples of specific luxury beliefs and how they play out across classes? I’m quite curious about some of the identity politics currently the rage right now. Who is bearing the cost of the trans issue for example? I notice in my own life luxury beliefs of the upper class (management) are stifling people and impacting the quality of work at the workplace.

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The extent to which the elite markets Rumspringa to the middle class but survives it far better due to its stronger safety net is clear in my recent research on middle and upper middle class older Americans who let lifestyle freedom rip in the 1970s and 1980s. What’s interesting to me is that elite social status and the stronger family networks of the poor often serve as limiters on the extent of lifestyle freedom pursued...it’s actually the middle class individual most likely to crash and burn when pursuing too much lifestyle freedom...they have smaller support networks and less status to protect. Creating a socially mobile, lifestyle freedom oriented middle class was an odd national experiment fueled by corporate desires to re-allocate bodies to new cities, industries, etc.

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From the Newsletter:

'Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.”'

It must be that the vast majority of people are "taken up with work" as evidence of refined tastes, manners (especially) and habits of life is almost completely absent.

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I just became a paying subscriber. That was a wonderful read. Cheers.

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I remember the Quillete article. I wish i printed. Thanks for the accessibility via this stack.

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A fascinating tangent is where luxury beliefs go next. Either cyclical, like couture, or ever more wildly unmoored from reality.

I can imagine a return to the strict conservatism of Victorian (stated, but not lived) morality. Or an accelerationist pursuit of increasingly bizarre theoretical and anti-human ideologies.

Someone should start a few prediction markets on this.

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I love this idea and had read the original, friends always enjoy hearing about it too, so thank you.

Some questions I have:

- Is a luxury belief actually that difficult to hold? I.e. if I am someone who is hurt by the action of defunding the police, even if I support the notion, my individual effect on making it happen is minimal. Therefore is it low cost to adopt that belief in some respects?

- You touch on the part of luxury beliefs that are afforded by education (as the ideas and language are complex to grasp). Have you read Matthew Yglesias' piece on that?


Where do you rank the importance of that vs the cost of holding the belief?

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I never actually read your original essay on luxury beliefs, despite how often it seems to get referenced. I can see why it caught on, pretty good stuff. Thanks for the re-upload!

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not the upper class that

initiated many social changes in America and beyond. The proletariat took it to the streets not the comfortable upper class nor middle class. The upper clasd in these many instances of social change immulated the lower.

Or am I mixing metaphors: social change vs Upper class memes

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