Liberty Matters

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Luxury


I thank Hank Clark for his insightful comments. I agree that there remains something of a mystery regarding the reasons for the curtailment of sumptuary laws and that non-economic reasons can offer only a partial explanation. Attention also needs to be paid to certain authors Professor Clark included in his Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism before Adam Smith[62] and discussed in his Compass of Society: Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France.[63]
Clark has helped us understand that Nicholas Barbon’s A Discourse of Trade[64] marked a watershed moment in modern understandings of our insatiable appetites for luxury and the economic benefits that flow from satisfying those cravings. “The Wants of the Body,” Barbon explained, have natural limits, but “the Wants of the Mind are infinite.”[65]  It is only natural for us to desire what “can gratifie” our “Senses, “adorn our bodies, “and promote the Ease, Pleasure, and Pomp of Life.” And well before Montesquieu made the same point in Persian Letter 106, Barbon stressed the hordes of people employed in producing fashionable clothing. Even more laborers, he noted, are employed in the building trades and in the adornment of houses, and therefore it is an error to recommend “parsimony, Frugality and Sumptuary Laws as the means to make a Nation rich.”[66]
Of course it was not just emphasis on the positive effects of luxury on productivity and national wealth that helped to turn public opinion against sumptuary laws. Modern writers on economics stressed (pace classical writers focusing on virtue and Christian writers focusing on salvation) the desirability of achieving the “happiness,” “refinement,” and “pleasure” accompanying the consumption of luxury goods. Bernard Mandeville strongly emphasized the  “felicity” and “all the most elegant Comforts of Life” brought to us by luxury goods.[67] David Hume, in his essays “of Refinement in the Arts” and “Of Commerce,” spoke favorably of the goal of attaining “happiness,” “great refinement in the gratification of the senses,” and “the “pleasures of luxury.”[68] And, not surprisingly, Hume denigrated Sparta for denying its citizens the means to achieve happiness.[69] 
Jean-François Melon, in his influential A Political Essay upon Commerce, deplored the austerity of life resulting from sumptuary laws. Speaking of Geneva, he mocked a country where even the playing of a fiddle is considered dissolute. The inhabitants of such communities “resembleth,” he said, “rather a Community of Recluses, than a Society of Freemen.”[70] And Melon stressed the benefits of refinement. Do we really want, he asked, to live like the ancient Gauls who inhabited France during “the first Race of our Kings”? They experienced a “free, but savage Life” characterized by “Ferocity of Manners, little Commerce with civiliz’d Nations, [and] Ignorance of the Conveniences of Life”—a life, in short, no better than that of the Hurons and Iroquois of North America.[71]  Concerning the prioritization of pleasure, Montesquieu quoted Tacitus on the Roman desire for luxuries in the period of empire to replace “the harshness of the ancients” with “a more pleasant way of living.”[72]
Adam Smith focused most of his attention on the attainment of “natural liberty,” “freedom,” and “justice” in commercial societies possessing free markets, but he also praised such modern societies for producing “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people,”[73] giving even those at the bottom more luxury in their manner of living than is enjoyed by “many an African king.”[74] “Opulence and Freedom,” Smith asserted, are “the two greatest blessings men can possess.”[75]
Most importantly, both Smith and Montesquieu understood that sumptuary laws constrain liberty. Thus, in his lead essay, Professor Clark quoted Smith’s pronouncement in The Wealth of Nations that “kings and ministers” should not “watch over the oeconomy of private people, and …restrain their expence either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries.”[76] In Book VII, chapter 4 of The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu explained that although sumptuary laws are suitable for certain very small and very frugal republican states where sustaining wealth equality is vital, they are abridgments of “the use of the liberty one possesses” in monarchical states where luxury naturally flows from the inequalities of wealth that characterize such states.”[77]  Clearly, Professor Clark has done us a great service in reminding us that exploring the motivations behind sumptuary laws, and also the reasons for their gradual attenuation, can teach us much about the development of modern conceptions of liberty. 
[62.] Henry C. Clark, ed., Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2003).
[63.] Henry C. Clark, Compass of Society: Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).
[64.] Nicholas Barbon, A Discourse of Trade (1690), in Clark, ed., Commerce, Culture, and Liberty, 67-99.
[65.] Ibid., 73-74.
[66.] Ibid., 70-71, 80.
[67.] Bernard Mandeville, Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, 2 vols., ed. F. B. Kaye (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924); repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1988), I, 183, 197, cited in Christopher J. Berry, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 127, 131. In Book VII, chapter 1 of The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu repeated Mandeville’s argument that the growth of population centers augments the demand for luxuries since people become very vain about impressing others.  See Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 7.1, p. 97.
[68.] David Hume, “Of the Refinement of the Arts” and “Of Commerce,” in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987), 268, 271, quoted by Berry, Idea of Luxury, 143-45.
[69.] Berry, Idea of Luxury, 143-44, 151.
[70.] Jean-François Melon, A Political Essay upon Commerce (1734), in Clark, ed., Commerce, Culture, and Liberty, 257.
[71.] Ibid., 258.
[72.] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 7. 4, p. 100 (italics in original).
[73.] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1979), 24, quoted by Berry, Idea of Luxury, 159.
[74.] Ibid., 24, quoted by Berry, Idea of Luxury, 159.
[75.] Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, eds. R. Meek, D. Raphael and P. Stein (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1978; repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund), 1982, 185, quoted by Berry, Idea of Luxury, p. 152.
[76.] Adam Smith, Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 346.
[77.] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 7.4, pp. 99-100.