The greatest danger that money poses is that it ceases to have anything to do with the value of goods at all, and becomes a way of measuring the value of a human life. Why do people abort their children? Often, it is because they feel they don’t have enough money to support a child. Why are the elderly abandoned in warehouse-style hospital wards, lonely and ignored while they wait in quiet desperation for death? Because they are “useless,” no longer able to financially contribute to the world.
Conspicuous consumption takes a number of different forms. Thorstein Veblen observed that some goods are perceived to be of greater value simply because their price is high. Diamonds are a good example: they are actually a fairly common stone, but because De Beers has monopolistic control over the supply they have been able to create artificial scarcity and keep the prices high. The value of a diamond is almost entirely a product of its price; it is not especially attractive compared to other gems, and it is not particularly rare. A woman wants to receive a diamond because it ostentatiously demonstrates that her lover or husband was willing and able to spend a lot of money to buy her a piece of jewellery. This is why one of the primary pleasures associated with owning a diamond is showing it off to others. Fancy cars, designer clothing, and expensive watches are other common examples of “Veblen goods.”
In the present age, one of the immaterial values which material things are often called on to signify is identity. Marshal McLuhan described the world today as “not a global village, but a global theater.” Television creates a culture in which people often have stronger relationships with artificial characters than with other human beings and in which role models are very often people who are themselves playing a role. Identities are no longer rooted in families or in communities, and the anonymity of city life creates a need to create and maintain identities which are immediately visible and which declare themselves through concrete symbols. Consumer goods become the tribal signs by which people with similar interests and attitudes recognize and identify one another. In many sub-cultures, the outward signs of wealth, success, or fashion are essential to defining oneself as an insider, and even in “counter-cultural” circles, it is often necessary to live in the right neighbourhood, to eat from the right grocery stores, and to participate in the consumption of niche-marketed goods.
Conspicuous consumption is not only a good way to make oneself poor fast, it is also immoral: “Countless millions are starving, countless families are destitute, countless men are steeped in ignorance; countless people need schools, hospitals, and homes worthy of the name. In such circumstances, we cannot tolerate public and private expenditures of a wasteful nature; we cannot but condemn lavish displays of wealth by nations or individuals” (Populorum Progressio).
Excerpted from Slave of Two Masters
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