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Top hats, stotting, and defunding the police: Rob Henderson on Luxury Beliefs

Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.

In 1899, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Drawing on observations about social class in the late nineteenth century, Veblen’s key idea is that because we can’t be certain about the financial status of other people, a good way to size up their means is to see whether they can afford expensive goods and leisurely activities.

This explains why status symbols are so difficult to obtain and costly to purchase.

In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing like tuxedos, top hats, and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities like golf or beagling.

These goods and leisurely activities could only be purchased or performed by people who did not work as manual laborers and could spend their time and money learning something with no practical utility… In short, his idea was about how economic capital was often converted into cultural capital.

These findings were later echoed by the renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.

In his body of work, Bourdieu described how “distance from necessity” characterized the affluent classes. In fact, Bourdieu coined the term “cultural capital.”

Once our basic physical and material needs are met, people can then spend more time cultivating what Bourdieu called the “dispositions of mind and body” in the form of intricate and expensive tastes and habits that the upper classes use to obtain distinction.

Corresponding with these sociological observations, the biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that animals evolve certain displays, traits, and behaviors because they are so physically costly.

Many people are familiar with the example of the peacock’s tail. Only a healthy bird is capable of growing such plumage while managing to evade predators.

A lesser known example is the behavior of the African gazelle.

When these animals spot a predator, the healthy adult gazelles often engage in what is called “stotting.” They repeatedly jump as high as they can, springing vertically into the air with all four feet raised.

The signal this sends to predators is essentially: “I’m so fit that I can afford to expend valuable energy to show you how strong and robust I am compared with the other gazelles.” The predators then direct their attention to less lively and energetic targets.

So for humans, top hats and designer handbags are costly signals of economic capacities; for gazelles, stotting is a costly signal of physical capacities.

Well, who was the most likely to support the fashionable defund the police cause in 2020 and 2021?

A survey from YouGov found that Americans in the highest income category were by far the most supportive of defunding the police.

They can afford to hold this position, because they already live in safe, often gated communities. And they can afford to hire private security.

In the same way that a vulnerable gazelle can’t afford to engage in stotting because it would put them in increased danger, a vulnerable poor person in a crime-ridden neighborhood can’t afford to support defunding the police.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year, the poorest Americans are seven times more likely to be victims of robbery, seven times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault, and twenty times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.

Expressing a luxury belief is a manifestation of cultural capital, a signal of one’s fortunate economic circumstances.

Rob Henderson – Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols


1 thought on “Top hats, stotting, and defunding the police: Rob Henderson on Luxury Beliefs”

  1. Nice post, Stu. Only 10 paintings left to do on my end! (I realized I can send you a link to the draft .pdf of the catalogue if you’re interested. Let me know.)

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