Front Page Titles (by Subject) 27: Of Luxury - Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship
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27: Of Luxury - Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship 
Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship, translated by Shelagh Eltis, with an Introduction to His Life and Contribution to Economics by Shelagh Eltis and Walter Eltis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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As soon as one writes on luxury, some excuse it, others satirise it, and one proves nothing. The fact is that people do not try to agree.
We speak of luxury as of something of which we have a perfect notion, and yet we only have a comparative notion of it. What is luxury for one people is not for another; and for the same people what used to be luxury can cease to be so.
Luxury, in the original meaning of the word, is the same thing as excess; and when one uses it in that sense one begins to agree on it. But when we forget this first meaning, and so to speak rush to a host of associated ideas, without stopping at any one, we no longer know what we want to say. For the moment let us substitute the word excess for luxury.
The rough and ready life of our tribe, from the point of its settlement, would be an excess of refinement in the eyes of a savage, who, being accustomed to live from hunting and fishing, could not understand the purpose of the needs it had created for itself. Because the land, without being worked, provides for his subsistence, it seems to him that those who cultivate it are too fastidious about the means of subsistence.
There you have, in his judgement, an excess, which is not so in our judgement, or in that of our tribe.
But even among our tribe, each new comfort which custom will introduce can be seen as an excess of refinement by all those who do not yet feel the need for it. Is the tribe thus condemned to fall from excess to excess, according to its progress in the arts?
Men only differ in their judgement as to what all are agreed to call excess, because, as they do not all have the same needs, it is natural that what seems excess to one, does not seem so to another. There you probably have the reason why one has so much difficulty in knowing what one means when one speaks of luxury.
I distinguish two sorts of excess: those which are only so because they seem such in the eyes of a certain number; others which are so because they seem so in everyone’s eyes. I make luxury consist of the latter. So then let us see what are the things which must appear a luxury in everyone’s eyes.
However refined goods might have appeared at the beginning, they are in no way an excess when it is in their nature to become of common use. Then they are a consequence of the progress it is so important to make in the arts; and there will come a time when everyone will be agreed in considering them necessary. One can even see that they can be reconciled with simplicity.
When, on the other hand, goods of a kind that can never become plentiful are kept back for the smallest number to the exclusion of the majority, they must always be regarded as an excess: even those who have the greatest pleasure in their enjoyment could not disagree. Therefore luxury consists in the articles which appear an excess in the eyes of all, since by their nature they are reserved for the minority to the exclusion of the majority.
Linen, which was a luxury in its early days, is not so today. Gold and silver which, in movable goods and clothes, have always been a luxury, will always be so.
Silk was a luxury for the Romans, because they drew it from the Indies, and consequently it could not be a common good among them. It began to be less of a luxury for us when it started to be a product of our climate; and it will become less so, to the degree that it becomes less scarce.
Finally, potatoes would be a luxury on our tables, if our fields produced none; and if we had to make them come at great expense from North America, whence they came originally. Rich folk, whose taste is proportional to the rarity of the dish, would judge them excellent; and a plate of this root, last resource of peasants without bread, would be the talking-point of a meal.
To judge whether there is luxury in the use of some goods, it is therefore often enough to consider the distance of the places from which one draws them. Indeed, when commerce is carried on between two neighbouring nations, luxury cannot creep in to either of them; because through exchanges the same goods can become common in both.
The same is not the case when trade is carried out between two much-separated peoples. What is common among us becomes luxury in the Indies, where it is necessarily scarce; and what is common in the Indies becomes luxury among us, where it is necessarily also scarce.
So luxury can exist in the use of goods which one summons from afar: but that is not the only kind. There may be luxury in the use of goods which one draws from a neighbouring nation, and even in the use of goods which one finds in one’s own country.
It is asserted that if France paid in champagne for Brussels lace, it would give the product of more than sixteen thousand arpents of vines for the product of just one arpent of flax.* Lace, though it does not reach us from far away, is thus an article whose use cannot be common, in other words a luxury good.
But, if lace were made in France, it would be no less a luxury: it would be at an even higher price and, in consequence, of less common use.
The cost of labour thus converts into luxury goods the raw materials which our soil produces in the greatest abundance. There is plenty of this luxury in our furniture, in our carriages, in our jewellery, etc.
Although all these luxuries tend to corrupt behaviour, they are not all equally harmful. Let us consider them first of all with regard to the state; we shall consider them next with reference to individuals.
Two nations will trade with the same advantage, every time that each of them receives in products a quantity equal to what it hands over. But if one gives the product of sixteen thousand arpents for the product of a single one, it is clear that it will be hurt sensationally. The luxury of lace is thus harmful to France. It takes away a large amount of subsistence, and so it tends to reduce the population.
It could be beneficial to Europe to send the surplus of its products to the Indies. But if it only had a surplus because it was depopulating itself, it would do better to use its lands for the subsistence of its own inhabitants, and to increase its products in order to increase its population.
It was especially useful for it, in this commerce, to get rid of part of the gold and silver which America provided it in excess. But the luxury goods which it draws from the Indies cost it in exchange millions of men. How many perish on the journey! How many in unhealthy climates where it is obliged to have depots! How many in wars with the Indians! I will believe this luxury beneficial for Europe when it has been proved that she has a surplus population.
As for the luxury goods which come from our soil and our hard work, they may have some utility, but they are not without abuse.
When a rich man buys a litron of small peas from the first crop it is a luxury, everyone agrees. But one could wish that all the excesses of moneyed men were of this type: because their wealth would discharge itself straight away on the fields, like manure fit to make them fertile.
It is not to be doubted that the sums which we spend on furniture, on carriages, on jewels, are likewise poured on our fields, when we employ our own workmen for these artefacts; since these workmen return them individually to the cultivator who gives them their subsistence. But they are not poured out there immediately. They begin by making the artisan wealthy; they get him used to pleasures which are a luxury for him; and these possessions excite the envy or the emulation of all those who hope to succeed in the same trade.
Indeed, as this artisan is a peasant whose relatives are ploughmen, his improved condition will demonstrate to all in his village how industry in towns has advantages over the labours of the countryside. So people will leave the villages. Out of ten peasants who have taken up crafts, one will succeed, and nine will not earn enough to live off. So there will be ten men lost to agriculture, and nine more paupers in the town. There you have the undesirable consequences of luxury for the state, when it consists in pieces of work for which we use our own workers.
To judge the undesirable consequences of luxury with regard to individuals, I distinguish three kinds of it: luxury of splendour, luxury of useful goods, luxury of frivolities.
The first seems to me the least ruinous, since some of the things which have served for splendour can be used for it again; and besides, when they are of a sort that is not used up, they keep a great value, even after they have been used for our purposes. Of this kind are gold or silver dishes, diamonds, vessels of rare stones, statues, paintings, etc.
The luxury of commodities, more contagious because it is proportionable to the means of a much greater number of citizens, can be very expensive because it becomes greater along with increasing softening of manners, and most of the things one uses for it lose all their value.
Finally, the luxury of frivolities, subject to fashion’s whims, which renews itself continuously in fresh forms, throws people into expenses to which no limits are seen; and yet, for the most part, frivolities only have value at the point when people buy them.
What is the fortune that can prove adequate for all these kinds of luxury? So resources are needed, and sadly people find them to bring about their ruin. You will doubtless say that luxury helps a vast number of workmen to live, and that when the wealth remains in the state, it is of little importance that it passes from one family to another.
But when there is disorder in all fortunes, can it avoid being in the state? What becomes of manners when the chief citizens, whom one takes as an example, are forced to be at one and the same time greedy and spendthrift, knowing only the need for money, so that any means of making it is accepted among them, and none dishonours? Luxury gives subsistence to a host of workers, I agree. But are we to shut our eyes to the wretchedness which spreads in the countryside? Who then has the greater right to subsistence, is it the craftsman who makes luxury goods, or the ploughman?
It is a statement of fact that only the simple life can make a people rich, powerful and happy. See Greece at her zenith: she owes the power which astounds decadent nations to her residuum of simplicity. Even see the peoples of Asia before Cyrus. They had vices, they knew gorgeous display; but luxury had not yet spread its mortal poison over every part of society. If splendour was evident in the treasures amassed for future need, in great enterprises, in works as gargantuan as they were useful; if it was evident in movable goods, in clothes; at least they did not know all our comforts and they were even less familiar with all the frivolities which we are not ashamed to have made necessities for ourselves. Even the luxury of the table, such as it was, only occurred at state feasts. It consisted in plentifulness rather than in refinement. There was not twice daily a profusion of dishes, even in individuals’ houses, prepared with elegance and spread out with luxury.
I would happily excuse the luxury of the ancient peoples of Asia. I see it reconciled with a residuum of simplicity, even in the palaces of kings. If it is great, I see it supported by even greater wealth, and I understand that it may have been of some use. But we who, in our wretchedness, have only resources which ruin us, and who to obtain these resources do not fear to dishonour ourselves, we want to live in luxury, and we expect our luxury to be useful!
[* ] Cantillon, Essai sur la nature du Commerce, Part 1, Chapter 15.