Peter Singer: Why Pay More?

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Peter Singer gawks at conspicuous consumption in the 21st century, and not in the way conspicuous consumers want to be seen.

Wearing a watch that costs 200 times more than one that does a better job of keeping time says something else, even when it is worn by people who are not governing a relatively poor country. Andrew Carnegie, the richest man of Veblen’s era, was blunt in his moral judgments. “The man who dies rich,” he is often quoted as saying, “dies disgraced.”

We can adapt that judgment to the man or woman who wears a $30,000 watch or buys similar luxury goods, like a $12,000 handbag. Essentially, such a person is saying; “I am either extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish. If I were not ignorant, I would know that children are dying from diarrhea or malaria, because they lack safe drinking water, or mosquito nets, and obviously what I have spent on this watch or handbag would have been enough to help several of them survive; but I care so little about them that I would rather spend my money on something that I wear for ostentation alone.”

Of course, we all have our little indulgences. I am not arguing that every luxury is wrong. But to mock someone for having a sensible watch at a modest price puts pressure on others to join the quest for ever-greater extravagance. That pressure should be turned in the opposite direction, and we should celebrate those, like Sikorski, with modest tastes and higher priorities than conspicuous consumption.

The extravagance race is the arms race is the capital race. Keeping up with the Joneses is keeping up with the Soviet threat is keeping up with Chinese technology. To each his own Tower of Babel: self-monumentalism; burning existence for appearances.

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