Whenever I write something criticizing the rich for doing things I find inexcusably wasteful and immoral, such as designing luxury Hawaiian shirts covered in bags of money or firing a convertible into space, I inevitably get the same email, the gist of which is roughly “If you think billionaires should spend their money keeping poor children alive rather than building full-scale replicas of Old West cowboy towns, do you spend every nonessential part of your income keeping poor children alive? If you weigh spending against what the money could be going to instead, how do you justify your own purchase of, say, vintage cravats?” A correspondent recently suggested that my view on wasteful spending by the rich, if its implications were followed through, would mean that nobody could ever go on vacation or go to the movies or celebrate Mardi Gras. That’s because all of these things will seem indefensible if you analyze them as “Things You Are Choosing To Spend Money On Instead Of Donating To An Anti-Malaria Charity.”
This question poses a serious challenge to anyone who believes in analyzing people’s spending choices from a moral perspective. Of course, many on the left don’t believe in that kind of analysis: you could adopt the Oscar Wilde/Slavoj Žižek view that charity actually reinforces oppression because it mitigates the harms of a system and prevents people from understanding the systemic problems. I have not adopted the Žižek view, because I am uncomfortable with any theory that concludes you should actually make people’s lives worse on purpose. (I’ve mentioned before that I once co-wrote a parody of a leftist academic book, in which the authors concluded that one should always be rude to serving staff because it would help them better understand the nature of capitalism.) But even if you don’t say that, you could say that while charity is good, it’s not morally mandatory, and we shouldn’t analyze consumption choices through a moral lens because they’re relatively unimportant: what matters is the justice or injustice of the system of wealth distribution, not what people do once the wealth has been distributed. This has never been my perspective either, because I think people’s individual choices still have consequences, and those consequences matter. If I am trying to decide whether to spend my millions either buying eyeglasses for nearsighted children or purchasing enormous barrels of feathers to jump in, what happens to the children depends on my decision.
But then I fall straight down the slippery slope. The slippery slope is often called a “fallacy” but often it just describes how a series of inevitable logical steps taken from a certain premise lead you to a conclusion you want to avoid. If A is indefensible, isn’t B indefensible too? And if B is indefensible, surely C must be too? Soon you’re at Z, and Z ends up indicting everything you do as morally indefensible. Whoops. It may seem ludicrous to say “Criticizing wasteful spending on a space program means that nobody can ever again go on a vacation or purchase a handbag.” But if you follow a certain train of reasoning, that’s where you get.
This doesn’t just concern me because it implies that my cravat-budget is murdering poor children. It also concerns me because I think a philosophy that leads you to believe Mardi Gras should be canceled for moral reasons is… not going to catch on. I think the natural inclination is to say “Well, if judging spending choices by the ‘couldn’t this have been spent on poor kids?’ framework leads you to the belief that you have to become a joyless ascetic, then clearly it’s a bad question and it’s fine to spend money on luxuries.” This is certainly the approach many of my correspondents have taken: the conclusions they arrive at by carrying through the principle are so absurd and discomforting that they reject the principle.
It’s easy to see why that’s not what we should do: if you react to moral questions that lead you to unpleasant conclusions by refusing to ask the questions, then if it turns out you’re participating in an atrocity, you will never figure it out. We can imagine various historical parallels: a Confederate soldier asks himself whether all races are equal. He realizes that if he concludes that all races are equal, he’ll have to believe his friends are bad people fighting for an immoral cause. Because he cannot accept that his friends are bad people fighting for an immoral cause, he avoids interrogating his racial beliefs, or concludes that all races must not be equal. Not asking any question that might indict your choices is a great way of avoiding self-doubt, but it’s not a great way of making sure you’re living up to your values.
And yet: there is something to the idea that a moral code should at least be realistic. If it just results in you feeling guilty about living a perfectly ordinary life, and lamenting every party and parade as an unacceptable waste, then it might not even do anyone any good. If the whole point is to improve the consequences of your actions, then a code that makes you feel like your actions are bad, but doesn’t lead to any actual productive change needs to be rejected on principle. (For example, unless you are an incredibly disciplined utilitarian, realistically, you’re not going to refuse to give your child a birthday cake just because there are other sick children who do not have birthday cakes. Instead you’ll just end up feeling bad about the cake and spoiling the party by shaming everyone.)
So I could resolve the “Well, what about your spending?” question by saying “Well, it’s probably indefensible and I feel really bad about it actually and I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t help myself.” I’ve been tempted by this approach before, because it can seem like the right answer at first. But because it leads to the idea that nearly everyone in the United States is making bad moral choices and should feel guilty all the time, I think we should see if there are alternative ways of looking at the situation. (Bearing in mind that, in doing so, we might be like the Confederate soldier.)
Say we agree that some uses of resources are unacceptably wasteful, because they could be going to help people and are not. How do we define which ones are wasteful and which ones are necessary? Is a space program wasteful? Is my wardrobe? Should I have had a “tall” latte instead of a “grande” this morning and donated the quarter I saved to charity? Should I have actually had water instead of coffee in the first place? One way to begin to address these questions, I think, is by defining “necessity” versus “waste” as “category of the things that, if taken away, would make a joyless and spartan world” versus “the category of things that, if taken away, would not make the world joyless and spartan.” I am fine with a world in which we don’t go to space for a while. A world in which we can never have quinceañeras or discothèques would eliminate things that I think are vital and wonderful parts of human flourishing. Things like literature and painting and athletics do not seem, to me, expendable. Instead, they seem like basic entitlements that all human beings should be able to participate in.
We will of course disagree on what the boundaries between the necessary and the indulgent are. But just because it’s difficult to draw a boundary between two categories, it doesn’t mean the categories themselves are useless or meaningless or the same thing. (A good portion of legal arguments are over whether a particular set of facts should be lumped into one category or another, and there aren’t always obvious answers.) If we don’t define the “necessary” as “every single thing I could technically live without” but rather as “those things without which life would lack a core part of what makes it worth living,” then we’ve got a standard that does allow us to condemn excessive wasteful spending without sacrificing things that enrich our lives in ways fundamental to our happiness but that we could technically do without. So a vacation: sure! Vacations are great. They are important for living life well. Buying an island? Not so much. I don’t believe an island is fundamental to anybody’s happiness, but I do believe that if people don’t get to travel from time to time, that’s a shame and I think everyone should get to. If I need a new umbrella, I’m going to buy one. I could wear a plastic bag with holes in it, or just get wet. But I don’t want to, and I shouldn’t have to. I like my umbrella, it brings me pleasure and it’s a reasonable thing to have. But if I started buying dozens and dozens of custom-made umbrellas with a portrait of my face on each of them, well, I think it would be hard to defend that.
Essentially, I believe there is a workable conception of “the reasonable and good life.” It includes the basics, like not starving and having good healthcare and a house and meaningful work, but it goes beyond that: it also includes getting to wear clothes you like, getting to go to movies and concerts, and getting to screw around sometimes. I don’t think the reasonable and good life requires living in a mansion or having nine cars or a helicopter. I do think it means that you should have some nice things.
We’ve talked about this before, somewhat misleadingly, as “luxury leftism”: the idea that “nothing is too good for the working class,” and that we should be trying to make sure everyone gets some comforts and pampering, rather than encouraging anyone to have a life of deprivation and asceticism. I say it’s misleading, though, because it suggests that there’s no upper limit to what’s permissible, that being a champagne socialist is fine even if the champagne in question is absurdly costly. I don’t think that’s true: the point is that you should get to have indulgences, not that you should get everything. There is an upper limit to the number of cravats I think I should own before it becomes obscene.
This framework, that does not force one to feel guilty about springing for something special or living in a nice apartment, is deceptive in a way. It sounds like it’s rationalizing excess, but actually it’s strengthening the force of the indictment against the super-wealthy. If we believe that what is justified is “that which is necessary for a good, fulfilled, and joyful life” and no more, then really any retention of wealth over a certain amount cannot be defended. There is a kind of “Maximum Moral Income,” and you can peg it at 30,000 dollars, 50,000, or 100,000 (I know people who would go on the low end, I am on the high end). But we can all agree that $100,000 a year is plenty to not only have that which is minimally necessary, but also that which falls into our broadened necessity category, “that without which life wouldn’t be very lively.”
Adopting a Maximum Moral Income conception is useful because, once you have it, the protests of the rich seem much more feeble. If we believe that anything non-essential is wasteful and immoral, then the nice umbrella I buy on my $30,000 a year salary is in the same category as a 90 million dollar spaceship launch. And since my umbrella seems intuitively fine to most people, the force of the critique of waste at the upper end is blunted. Whereas, if we define a line (albeit a debated one) and agree that whatever falls below it is fine and whatever falls above it isn’t, we aren’t left with a philosophy that is practically unworkable for nearly everybody. In fact, it then becomes much more difficult to defend things in the “waste” category because we’ve limited it to the worst cases. (Can anyone defend having ten cars as something without which life would be significantly worse?)
I am sure there are plenty of utilitarians who are still deeply uncomfortable with this, because they still view every dollar spent on a bag of pistachios as a dollar not spent on reducing malaria. And they would say I’ve just become my Confederate soldier: I have adopted a philosophy in part because it allows me not to come to conclusions I don’t want to come to. But perhaps those utilitarians will be persuaded by this: I think the adoption of this rule will make it far easier to get money reallocated to better causes. If we call a certain amount of people’s goods “exempt from guilt,” then we can focus in on the non-exempt goods. I can sell a philosophy that shames people for keeping more than $65,000 a year. I can’t sell one that shames them for having an iPhone.
This is not to say that morality should be easy, or that I, with my magazine editor’s salary, shouldn’t ever feel troubled by my privilege or try to make the world better. But I don’t see why it’s necessary or helpful for me, with $100,000 in debt to my name, to spend time fretting over my purchases, when there are so many people with so much more who could do so much more good and are declining to do it. Let’s not go after people with a luxury here and there, but the ones who fritter away millions on what we should all be able to agree is useless bullshit.
I doubt my analysis here will make anyone happy, and I am sure there are countless contradictions and problems with it that will inevitably be pointed out to me at exhaustive length in irate emails. Those who believe people should feel guilt over everything they do other than help alleviate suffering will feel that I’m constructing a cop-out. Leftists who think consumption choices have no moral implications will think I’m delusional for talking about individual morality when I should be talking about systems. People who simply don’t see why they should spend their money helping others will reject the entire premise and say “I earned it, why shouldn’t I do what I please with it?” (Because when you do what you please with it children die, that’s why.) But I think “Give away all of your earnings above Amount X,” with Amount X defined as something very generous that allows a reasonable level of indulgence and luxury, is a moral rule that is both challenging and reasonable. And it has the advantage of not instructing people that they are ethically required to be miserable party-poopers.
Photo: Mardi Gras parade in front of the Current Affairs office. (Krewe of Bacchus) I like Mardi Gras, even though it’s obviously incredibly wasteful. A philosophy that condemns Mardi Gras is a philosophy that will entice nobody and will make the world a significantly worse place.
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