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"Luxury beliefs" are not real

"Luxury beliefs" are not real

Rob Henderson coined the term "luxury beliefs" — views that provide status to the upper classes but are costly to the lower classes — based on plausible theoretical grounds, but he only seems interested in using the concept as a cudgel against liberals

For a long time, the idea of "status" was a theoretical framework most associated with liberal scholarship — a construct for demonstrating the breadth of social inequality and charting its structural causes. In recent years, however, the most prolific uses of status in social analysis — e.g. Will Storr’s The Status Game and Jordan Peterson’s lobster theory — correspond to a right-wing, zero-sum worldview where humans are condemned by evolutionary forces to dominate others. Rob Henderson, a self-professed disciple of Peterson who received his PhD in Psychology from Cambridge, has amassed a large following on X by sharing thoughts and scholarly insights about status in contemporary society. His fans include many marquee conservatives, including Senator J.D. Vance and North Korean defector Yeonmi Park.

Henderson, according to his own website, is well-known for “pioneering the concept of ‘luxury beliefs,’” a term he coined to “describe a new way of understanding the American status system.” This idea is central to his new memoir, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class, and serves as the centerpiece of his op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and The Times (UK). He defines luxury beliefs as "ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes." Henderson sees these views as playing a major role in contemporary status marking: "Thorstein Veblen’s famous 'leisure class,' has evolved into the 'luxury belief class.'" And as the Times op-ed suggests, Henderson believes these luxury beliefs are "eroding" society.

Henderson has indeed read a lot about status, and the idea of luxury beliefs is ostensibly grounded in Veblen, Bourdieu, and other scholars of social inequality. So I thought it would be useful to explore whether his thesis is accurate: Can beliefs be used to mark status like luxury goods? And is this how society is now organized?

We first need a clear definition of "belief." Beliefs are normative: a sense of how one thinks society should be organized in opposition to alternative courses of action. They are distinct from mere ideas (a thought in one’s head) and tastes (aesthetic predilection).

Next we need to define “luxury,” and since Henderson is clearly playing off the idea of “luxury goods,” we should take him to mean that these beliefs, like handbags, are acquired for the purpose of marking a higher status position. This is not necessarily a stretch. Luxury goods are status symbols, and anything can be a status symbol as long as it (1) has cachet, i.e. associations with high status groups (2) high signaling costs to prevent easy acquisition, and (3) an alibi for acquisition other than status signaling. 

So would “normative thoughts about the world that people acquire for the purpose of status marking" actually work for status marking?

All beliefs do come with strong alibis, because beliefs are not supposed to be status marking in the first place. They're supposed to be earnest viewpoints. Also, beliefs can easily become requirements for membership in certain groups, which means they could potentially take on cachet if they become known as a characteristic of high-status groups.

From here, however, the idea of luxury beliefs begins to unravel.

The biggest issue is with how Henderson frames costs. There are obviously no up-front financial “costs” to acquiring luxury beliefs in a way that mirrors the up-front “costs” to acquiring a handbag. So Henderson performs a subtle sleight of hand: When he writes that a luxury belief “inflicts costs” on the lower classes, he has shifted the meaning of the word from acquisition requirements to negative long-term effects. This completely voids any parallels to luxury goods. The rich purchase expensive sports cars, mansions, and yachts to demonstrate that they can easily pay the acquisition costs. They aren't purchasing these goods to show that they alone can endure the negative long-term effects of their ownership.

What's more, this theory of luxury beliefs presumes that humans can perfectly predict the long-term costs of their ideologies and only end up believing in normative positions that will ultimately be more detrimental to lower status people. Is this really how humans work? Moreover, centering luxury goods on long-term effects makes the theory instantly very political, because there will always be debates about any belief's outcomes in the long-run. But politics, as we'll see, is Henderson's point.

So what are Henderson's actual examples of luxury beliefs?

  1. Progressives seeking to “defund the police”
  2. The wealthy using recreational drugs knowing they themselves are unlikely to face major legal consequences
  3. Progressives using terms such as “heteronormative” and “cisgender”
  4. College women stating that “monogamy is outdated,” yet pledging to get married
  5. Liberal professionals admiring military service, yet preferring to not have their own children serve
  6. Tech company CEOs creating technology, yet not allowing their children to use it

Almost all of these views are associated with liberals on college campuses or professionals in coastal urban areas, and we already see here that Henderson is applying the term "upper class" to upper middle class professionals who earn high salaries rather than the traditional meaning of the word: high-income individuals who own companies or make money solely from investments. Henderson also assumes that non-monogamy and drug usage among the lower classes must be a trickle-down of liberal ideology (and yet, health-food obsessed liberals don't wield much influence on the eating habits of average Americans).

The last three of Henderson's examples listed above are particularly confusing: They’re not so much luxury beliefs as hypocrisies. But this is key for making luxury beliefs a real phenomenon: All liberal ideas must be held in bad faith to be used solely for marking status. In other words, these "upper-class" individuals on college campuses must be promoting these ideas knowing their ideology is bad for society. In Troubled, this verges on the conspiratorial; in her review in the Washington Post, Emi Nietfeld notes, “[Henderson] argues that the ostensible radicalism of his peers was actually hypocrisy born from self-interest: that privileged undergraduates want the less fortunate to be opioid-addicted obese single parents so that they can get ahead and become even wealthier by comparison.”

Certainly, most beliefs are self-serving. The bourgeoisie find it very profitable to believe in free markets, and professionals fight for meritocracy, because competition is what guarantees their social rise. And many ideologies are based in status logic. As Tom Wolfe noted, “Whether [individuals are] intellectuals or stock car racers, they tend to emphasize values that, if they were absolute, would make them special people.” Individuals with the same status assets (wealth, fame, talents) cluster together and tend to agree that those particular assets should be considered the most valuable.

But this self-interest tends to be unconscious. We not only deny it, but we aren't in control of acquiring beliefs the way we acquire a Louis Vuitton handbag instead of a Prada handbag. We unconsciously absorb baseline worldviews during our upbringing from authorities and peers. And once we have a paradigmatic sense of the world, we take on additional beliefs that conform to how we already think. Whether "BIPOC" is the most socially effective term or not, the underlying concept conforms to previous ideas about racial injustice. Just because its usage may alienate uneducated people is not proof that it could only be acquired to alienate.

Henderson finds good faith impossible among the educated. “When someone uses the phrase cultural appropriation,” writes Henderson, “what they are really saying is, 'I was educated at a top college.’” This presumes that there could be no earnest reason to discuss cultural appropriation as a social phenomenon, which is odd because Henderson seems earnest in wanting to discuss the equally academic concept of luxury beliefs as a social phenomenon.

The most compelling example of luxury beliefs has been the idea of “defunding the police” in that there is a clear class divide: proponents tend to be richer than the opponents. However, to be strictly classified as a luxury belief, not just a misguided one, Henderson has to prove (1) There is no ideological logic behind this policy preference, and (2) wealthy liberals intentionally want to worsen crime in blighted areas to make the suburbs seem like higher status places to live.

So far, we see that the concept of luxury beliefs presumes the entirety of liberal ideology is held in bad faith. This seems far too cynical and not realistic. But let's assume for a second that luxury beliefs actually exist. This brings us to Henderson's true achilles heel: Ideas associated with ultra-wealthy conservatives, not young liberals, inflict the highest costs on poor people. Climate change disproportionately hurts the poor, so why is “climate denial” — an idea popular with so many right-wing millionaires and billionaires but rare on college campuses — not the ultimate luxury belief? In Henderson's view of the world, billionaires, who can afford bunkers in New Zealand, will decide to become climate denialists knowing that only they can afford the long-term costs when the planet gets too hot. The same goes for tax cuts — the centerpiece of Republican governance over the last thirty years. The actual upper class in America, not campus liberals, fight for tax cuts that increase their own wealth while causing downstream negative effects on the quality of public services for the poor. Why is Henderson not castigating white lower middle class Americans for continually voting for a party centered around the luxury belief of tax cuts for the wealthy and gutting of government entitlements?

Even putting aside Henderson's transparent political agenda, the idea of luxury beliefs is built on many unsupported assumptions: (1) individuals freely choose beliefs knowing the exact long-term costs on society, (2) campus leftists represent "the upper class," (3) the lower classes do drugs and fail to get married under the influence of liberal ideology, and (4) conservative ideas like tax cuts for the rich and climate denial are exempt from similar analysis. To conservatives, I’m sure my criticisms will be roundly dismissed as a liberal blindly defending liberalism, but proponents of luxury beliefs should spend much more time proving that Henderson's mechanisms of human behavior do exist. Upon initially hearing the term "luxury belief," I thought it could work as a politically neutral concept, but in its current conception, the term is becoming a conventional piece of language required for acceptance in right-wing circles — perhaps even a costly one that cloaks the actual causes of social problems.

(Addendum: Noah Smith came to similar conclusions about "luxury beliefs.")