Two cheers for the tasteless
By Alberto Mingardi
Does Tamara Ecclestone prompt “a rethink of capitalism“? So writes the Philosopher’s Mail, a website that aims to “prove genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues”.
Nowadays, rich people easily raise to the status of global celebrities just because they are, well, rich. The news world is always hungry for gossip, and the flamboyant lives of the Tamara Ecclestones of this world drive traffic to websites and help in filling newspapers’ pages. I would add that there is a growing perception that the jet set is no longer what is used to be. Once upon a time it had its narrators, such as Somerset Maugham or Gore Vidal in his memoirs “Palimpsest”. The rich and glamorous had their dirty secrets – but they used to be, well, secrets. Once upon a time, limited information was available on the private lives of the famous and powerful. That is no longer the case, and the weirder a celebrity acts, the more news coverage she gets.
This is to say that I am not sure that Ms. Ecclestone and her ilk are now more immoderate than their predecessors: but certainly we are more knowledgeable, to the minutest detail, of their loves, shopping, and habits.
This is, to the best of my understanding, the frame in which we may ponder what The Philosophers’ Mail writes:
The deep problem of Capitalism is not so much that it leads to private wealth, but that it leaves it entirely to chance whether people do wonderful things with their advantages – or concentrate on motorised racks for their shoes.
In the 15th century, Lorenzo di Medici funded the Renaissance. In the 1920’s, Catherine Drexel founded Xavier University in New Orleans, which played a major role in developing a black professional middle-class, with incalculable benefits to the US. In the 1940’s, William Volker, who made a fortune selling household furnishings, funded a number of US think-tanks that eventually made a great contribution to the peaceful and successful ending of the cold-war. These were grand ambitions commensurate to extraordinary means. They also remain the sharp exceptions.
Perhaps a lot of the resentment against the rich is really a way of being justifiably angry, not at their money, but at their lack of purpose and imagination. (…) Arguments in favour of redistribution and against inequality are at least in part complaints about wasted opportunities.
Now, lots of people find the rich tasteless–and perhaps with good reason. This happens very frequently to intellectuals, who (they think) have better taste than most people. To be fair, intellectuals find the great unwashed pretty tasteless too. In The Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises argued that they very often misinterpret capitalism for being responsible for the low taste of the masses, and thus become inveterate critics of the market system: “Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.”.
Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make: but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items (as “the poor” tend to prefer the collected works of Stan Lee to Marcel Proust).
Those who criticize the low tastes of the rich do instead maintain they do not deserve the money they had, and they criticize capitalism for rewarding culturally worthless people.
I’d say this is an argument that has very little to do with “redistribution and inequality”, unless you believe redistribution should work from the tasteless to the tasteful. I am sure that Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding cake didn’t bake itself, that her new luxury Range Rover SUV did not assemble itself, and that “her large house in Kensington Palace Garden” did not refit itself either. The profligate spending by Tamara is a great opportunity for many to make their living. Her largess in using her freedom to choose, helps others in making use of their “freedom to be chosen”–i.e., it enables them to provide services, make money, grow their kids, buy a little nice summer house, and choose between spending a night at the opera or watching “A Night at the Opera”.