This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
The poodle of the Empress Livia seems to have been neglected. If the authorities may be accepted, it enjoyed the entire services of only one man. — Gibbon, ch. 49, n. 155.
Nor was the luxury of those times of barbarous might greater than that of to-day. An easy walk with any people, whether in city or country, will afford contrasts as striking and painful as that between the palaces of Susa and the corners into which the common people crept for sleep; between the mansions on the Quirinal and the holes in which "Rome's rats" hid their wretched lives.
1st, What are the causes that set wealth apart for luxury?
(a) The most essential is the existence of a surplus. Other things equal, the degree of luxury will be as the surplus. The latter, however, will depend not so much on the general mass of wealth as on its apportionment among producers.
(6) The desire to gain and the desire to spend are antagonistic. They meet in every act of life, and one or the other must have its way. Luxury is the victory of the latter passion. The mere possession of a surplus is not enough. Some men remain eagerly devoted to gain, when their wealth is counted in millions: others retire, satisfied with the most moderate competency. The force of either motive will be greatly influenced, both by the security and the profitableness of investments. Every thing that renders business unsafe, makes withdrawal more desirable. On the other hand, every thing which raises the reward of capital, takes something from the zest of luxury.
2d, To what extent can wealth be devoted to luxury?
Gibbon gives countenance to the theory, that no state can, without soon becoming exhausted, support more than a hundredth part of its population in arms and idleness. This is to be understood as a hundredth part of the population, taken out of the able-bodied males; say, a twentieth part of these. The estimate is interesting, and has a certain share of truth; but its form shows it to be a very rude one.
Does it make no difference whether this portion is simply unproductive or also destructive? Does it make no difference whether these idlers are maintained in the dreamy, half-naked indolence of Asiatics, or in the splendid luxury of courts? no difference whether the general production of the country is large or small; whether the wants of the people and the necessities of government are few and simple, or many and great; whether rice enough for a year can be had by the labor of two weeks, as in India, or a bushel of grain costs the labor of eleven days, as in Lapland? The Athenian was content with his figs and philosophy: the cultivated Roman craved the brains of birds-of-paradise for his food, and was positive he wanted a palace on the Quirinal. Which maintained the larger share of its population in idleness? When Frederick the Great faced all Europe in arms, rye bread and potatoes, powder and lead, were all he served his army, — marshals and drummers alike. By such parsimony, he was enabled to make Prussia what she was, — "all sting." France, with the perfection of her warlike equipment, and the fastidious taste of her citizens, could not maintain a proportionate number of troops, even under the conscriptions of the empire.
It is in this light that we see the impossibility of fixing, for all nations, all climates, all ages, a common proportion of luxury that can be maintained, without bringing down the standard of industrial well-being. At the same time, it is plain that for each nation, at any time, there must be a point beyond which wealth cannot be spent in enjoyment, or time in idleness, without first oppressing the laboring class by hard exactions, and afterwards debasing the entire state.
We have already anticipated the remark, that idleness or leisure is a form of luxury, — a form of luxury that, in either sense, is almost unknown, to some peoples, whirled about, as they are, on the untiring wheels of manufacture and trade; a form of luxury that, as idleness, is the most costly of all indulgences, that corrupts all manners, perverts all the offices of nature, wastes all the powers of labor, and has its complete result in poverty, ignorance, and political servitude; a form of luxury which, as leisure, adorns life, and makes it worth living, compacts the acquirements of study and toil, re-creates and refreshes the whole man, and leads upward to an eternal rest and felicity.