This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
Luxury, — what is it, and what are its effects, economically considered? Noah Webster defines it as "a free or extravagant indulgence in the pleasures of the table, as in rich wines and expensive diet, or delicious food and liquors; voluptuousness in the gratification of the appetites, or the free indulgence in costly dress and equipage." We must give a far wider definition for our purposes, in the science of which we treat. A fine house is certainly as much a luxury as fine clothes or costly wines; so are statuary and paintings; so are a vast number of articles of common consumption in every condition of life. It is quite clear, too, that what would be esteemed a great extravagance in the royal establishment of Dahomey would be far otherwise in the humblest dwelling of Europe. The wigwam and the cottage exhibit very different phases of luxury. The loathsome poisons of "Gin Lane" are as truly luxuries, perhaps in the sense of Webster more so, than the "rich wines" and "delicious liquors " of the palace. Idleness is a cheap enjoyment in some spheres of life; but many a seamstress's wealth cannot buy her the time to weep.
"My tears must stop, for every drop Hinders needle and thread."
It is apparent that a specific definition of the term "luxury" is impossible; yet we can give a general formula that will be sufficient for our purpose. Luxury in the community is indulgence in those expenditures which are beyond the reach of the great mass of the people: luxury in the individual is indulgence in those expenditures which are beyond the strict necessities of maintenance, according to the customs of the social or economic class to which he belongs. It is not luxury for the ambassador of a nation to pay thousands of dollars for a great disagreeable state carriage, if the etiquette of court prescribes it: it is luxury for a laborer to pay five cents for a ride to his work, if he could as well walk.
Of course, this standard will vary in different countries, the inhabitants of one being able to command many indulgences which are denied to others. The luxuries of Europe are daily fare in Asia, while articles of common decency in an Irish hovel are unknown in the court of Delhi. Nor only this: the scale of luxury changes with every year.
Those articles which in one generation indicate wealth, become common property in the next. This results from the general progress of society and the constant advance of ■ economic powers. As production rises, it covers the monuments of earlier taste or grandeur.
The direction, too, of luxurious consumption varies with the culture and the aspiration of those able to indulge in it. In one circle, it will run to horses and hounds; in another, to paintings and statuary: some will turn for enjoyment to architecture; others, to dress and equipage; more, still, to feasting and dissipation.
The ground of luxurious consumption is, perhaps, best determined by the boundaries of its neighbors. It embraces nothing that is spent in the purpose of a reproduction, more or less immediate and direct. The necessary consumption of a people depends chiefly on absolute wants, is not greatly a matter of choice, fancy, or taste; but its luxuries, those things which it may or may not have, depend entirely, for their kind and degree, upon moral and intellectual characteristics. Consequently, they furnish an index of the national civilization.
1st, Do luxuries directly encourage industry?
We shall reach the truth of this by illustrations.- When William IV. came to the throne of England, he erected a tower at one of the entrances of the palace where he made his residence. It cost $500,000. There was no pretence of utility whatever in the building. It was pure luxury. It was an elegant structure. It gratified the monarch's taste. It was highly ornamental to the castle and the grounds. What was the economical effect? The erection gave employment to mechanics and laborers; it made a call for materials and architectural skill; it made trade brisk in the neighborhood. Was it therefore beneficial? Suppose it had accorded more with his majesty's views to take the same money, and with it erect two hundred cottages on the crown lands, at an expense of $2,500 each. This would have called for as much labor and materials as the tower; would have given as great an impetus to trade. At the same time, it would have brought into existence comfortable residences for the families of two hundred laborers. If the cottages were rented at a moderate rate, the income would be equal to a fair interest, and the dwellings would stand for generations, a valuable property, conferring happiness and comfort on a thousand people.