By John V.C. Nye
“Though there’s no arguing about tastes, we always do.”
The American economy today produces a cornucopia of goods that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. Where the first part of the twentieth century was given over almost entirely to the expansion of the economy through improved mass production of basic goods and services, the last few decades have come to be about businesses finding ways to satisfy our demands for aesthetic value. In the past, paying more to enjoy more beautiful goods was a pleasure restricted to the upper class. But now that the average American enjoys riches mostly undreamt of in previous centuries, it is not surprising that we focus on having better goods and more delightful experiences, not simply on piling up more stuff.
The result is a world where Michael Graves designs stylish toasters for Target and Martha Stewart brings exotic colors to sheets at Kmart. Virginia Postrel, in her new book, The Substance of Style, argues that the basic urge for beauty is actually as old as humanity. The very poorest of peoples, from our prehistoric ancestors to subsistence level farmers in large parts of the world today, willingly give up substantial amounts of their limited resources of time and effort to produce beautiful things that satisfy the inner person. And while some would not want to compare Martha Stewart’s color palette to a craftsman’s work in a king’s palace in medieval France, it is clear that a wide swath of the American population cares about a lot more than simply the direct utility they get from their chairs, food and homes. The ability to indulge that desire has never been easier.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Most economists have long argued that de gustibus non est disputandum. There’s no disputing tastes. We don’t try and figure out the ultimate worth of an item or a behavior. If people pay for it, they must be receiving value in return. Some social critics are not so sure.
The critics are bothered by two aspects of the choices people make in the realm of the aesthetic. The first is that in too many instances, consumers don’t truly get value from what they purchase. Instead, they are led by advertising and social pressure to throw their money away on empty purchases that serve no purpose other than the enrichment of greedy corporations. This is a long-standing theme of social critics. You could fill a nice-sized library with books by authors who argue that people’s consumer choices are misguided.1
A second critique of aesthetic choices made by the masses invokes the concept of externalities to dispute tastes. My tastes affect your happiness. My hair color may disgust you. My landscaping preferences may cause you displeasure as you stroll past my house to get to yours. While the particular cereal you had for breakfast has little effect on the people around you—especially in a world where cereal makers can supply as much as people want at market prices—what kind of house you have or even what kind of car you drive has clear, obvious effects on the way your neighborhood looks. In few other areas are people’s choices as likely to clash with one another. Whether or not you want to mind your own business, your neighbor’s choices in clothing, hair style, or music can have noticeable effects—for good or ill—on your quality of life. This works both for those who would prefer a more homogeneous environment, and those who value diversity and spontaneity. Satisfying one group inevitably means offending the other.
Postrel notes that some things can best be dealt with by association of likes. Housing subdivisions are the classic example where a certain style can be imposed on all residents for the good of the whole. Don’t like it? Move somewhere else. By allowing people to vote with their feet, we privatize the public good of neighborhood style.
But there are limits to this process. In the case of physical externalities such as pollution, we can often assign property rights as a way of settling disputes and improving matters. In the case of aesthetic externalities, property rights are often impossible to assign. While many will be willing to let you wear purple hair or a swastika tattoo as a form of freedom of speech or expression, it is much harder to imagine ways of settling disputes over larger aesthetic issues.
I may want to live in a world where people walk to work, know their neighbors well and sit on their front porch watching the fireflies on a summer’s night waving at those neighbors in familiar greeting. But that world will be hard to construct if most people have other preferences. Here’s another way to say it. Luddites who are not Amish may struggle to find the critical mass they need to live in a world akin to yesterday’s.
Should we care? One view is that a person who wants to live in a horse and buggy world without telephones is free to live in the woods on his own. But a person who wants that world populated by like-minded people is simply out of luck. The problem is that many people are not content to shrug and adapt. The aesthetic environment we live in is often determined by a weird mix of persuasion, coercion, and political competition. Because we enshrine free speech as one of our highest values, debates about aesthetics are couched in absolutist terms. Though there’s no arguing about tastes, we always do. And those whose values differ from the mainstream seek to impose their choices through persuasion, bullying, and sometimes, outright force via the political process, usually by arguing that some choices are simply ugly, offensive, or beyond the bounds of the acceptable.
It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that the debate over urban sprawl is more about aesthetics than any number of more obvious issues regarding the environment or the cost of long-distance commuting. To quote a young professor I know, “I just don’t like all these big cars and want to see few of them.” On the other hand, I also met a (probably atypical) Parisian who told me, “I’m sick of these old buildings and tired of Paris being a museum. We need more skyscrapers, freeways and shopping malls.” Perhaps these two gentlemen would be happy to switch places, but they cannot happily coexist in the same city.
At the end of the day, the look and feel of other people, their clothing, houses, cars, even the types of restaurants they choose to frequent, may have a bigger impact on our lives than what stocks they choose to buy or how much they pay in taxes. Since we can only live in one country at a time—though we do our best to choose where we live and work—we can no more have unlimited choices about what type of society to live in than we can have ten types of national defense for different subsets of the country. And while economics can help us to put things in perspective, some of these conflicts are ultimately unresolvable.
Stanley Lebergott examines this literature and responds to it wonderfully in his witty and informative Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1996). Tyler Cowen, a champion of the spread of style, reviews Postrel’s book here (http://www.ccoyne.com/files/Postrel.doc) [N.B. a MSWord file], and wonders about whether the pleasure we get from aesthetics is ultimately unsatisfying.