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All this vulgarity blinds us to certain truths

Astute observations from the EconLog blog:

Now, lots of people find the rich tasteless–and perhaps with good reason. This happens very frequently to intellectuals, who (they think) have better taste than most people. To be fair, intellectuals find the great unwashed pretty tasteless too. In the Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises argued that they very often misinterpret capitalism for being responsible for the low taste of the masses, and thus become inveterate critics of the market system: “Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.”

Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make: but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items (as “the poor” tend to prefer the collected works of Stan Lee to Marcel Proust). Those who criticize the low tastes of the rich do instead maintain they do not deserve the money they had, and they criticize capitalism for rewarding culturally worthless people.

I’d say this is an argument that has very little to do with “redistribution and inequality”, unless you believe redistribution should work from the tasteless to the tasteful. I am sure that Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding cake didn’t bake itself, that her new luxury Range Rover SUV did not assemble itself, and that “her large house in Kensington Palace Garden” did not refit itself either. The profligate spending by Tamara is a great opportunity for many to make their living. Her largess in using her freedom to choose, helps others in making use of their “freedom to be chosen”–i.e., it enables them to provide services, make money, grow their kids, buy a little nice summer house, and choose between spending a night at the opera or watching “A Night at the Opera”.

Personally, I’d go for watching the latter’s brilliant movie comedy the Marx brothers. That’s my low-brow side coming out.

My only caveat is about the final paragraph where the author defends the rich their spending by saying that this creates employment. I can see how a socialist/other might say that if we grab this money and redistribute it, this might also create jobs, etc. By all means point out how money circulates, but remember that utilitarian/consequentialist arguments for capitalism can get unstuck at times. In the end, if Lady Vulgar wants to spend her gazillions on flash cars, houses or whatnot, that is her business. End of story.

26 comments to All this vulgarity blinds us to certain truths

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items

    I often think that Marx was right in some things. Sometimes it does come down to class interest. What many of the critics of capitalism mean by “culturally worthless items” is “cultural items not produced by our class”.

    Another amusing point is how often the things decried as culturally worthless by one generation of anti-capitalist intellectuals become beloved of the next generation, on the understanding that their love is of a condescending and self-consciously ironic type. The attitude of the intelligentsia over the last sixty years towards the creations of Stan Lee are a case in point.

  • Mr Ed

    Well Mozart and Schickaneder’s Zauberflöte in its time seems to have been virtually a Singspiel or roughly, a Music Hall act, but today is regarded as a Grand Opera.

    It is one thing to shudder at the masses, quite another to wish them ill. I enjoy my annual visit to Clacton for the airshow, I feel a vast gulf between my tastes and what I see there, but I still find it interesting and I like to see what others enjoy.

    Whereas, for the intelligentsia of this topic, they may have a vested interest in the State providing for them at the expense of the masses, with subsidies or Public Sector jobs, but the masses have no need of them, and deep down they know it.

  • TDK

    Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make

    Not sure that is true anymore.

    Fifty plus years ago ‘scientific socialists’ pointed to the waste of Capitalism and claimed that if it were replaced by a planned economy there would be wealth in abundance. Such a framework is consistent with desiring wealth for the masses. Unfortunately, that version of socialism has died the death. Today’s socialists bemoan consumers gadgets and the tyranny of choice. Afluenza is a disease, the cure for which is reduced consumption. Consequently, while no one explicitly states that they want to take money away from the masses they do want to restrict their choices and make them more expensive to boot (Whole Food anyone), which amounts to the same thing as saying they do not deserve the money.

  • mike


    That is a brilliant little portmanteu.

  • Stonyground

    It seems to me that what qualifies as high culture and what gets dismissed as being vulgar is pretty subjective.

    Personally I get a buzz out of the appreciation of fine engineering and clever design, I think that such things qualify as culture in a way. Examples? I am a type one diabetic and I’m really impressed with the design of the insulin pens that I inject with. Mrs. Stonyground has a Daihatsu Sirion and the design of the folding rear seats is amazing. The car is tiny and yet the amount of legroom in the rear is pretty astonishing. The really clever part is the way that the base of the seats fold so completely down into the footwells so that the seat backs fold totally flat. I just like stuff that is cleverly designed and well made.

  • Paul Marks

    On Thursday in London hurrying to get somewhere (for some demented reason I was in a mad rush – I got to my destination two hours early and then wished I had visited various places) I passed a small art gallery.

    I went in (in spite of my mad rush) – what had attracted my eye were paintings so true-to-life that I it looked as if one could pick up the pebbles in the beach (there was a painting of such a beach – with such pebbles).

    I suppose this means I have vulgar tastes.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Not if it was a Dali, Paul. Tell me, was there a giraffe afire in the background?

    Anyway, I don’t see anything déclassé about virtuoso craftsmanship, whether it expresses the Finest of Fine Art or not.

    And what Stoney said, too. One generation’s High Art is another’s tasteless gewgaws and knickknacks.

  • Paul Marks

    No Julie it was a modern artist (alas the name has not remained in my mind – if I even spotted the name) – just one who paints things as they actually look.

  • Paul, artists don’t paint things as they actually look – rather, some of them paint them as they actually see them. You just happened to run into one who sees things the way you do. It may well be the case that many, if not most others see the world the same way, but art is not democratic, it is personal and individualistic.

    Some other artists paint things other than what they actually see – it may be what they would like to see, or what they fear they might see, or it may be things they happened to dream about (while asleep or awake), or imagine. Art is not about reality, in many ways it is something else entirely, if not the complete opposite. After all, there’s lots of reality out there. Art, not so much.

  • bloke in spain

    there’s a branch of art called trompe l’oeil which I’m very much in love with. Seems to be pretty well the opposite of what you’re saying. Or is it not art & I’m tasteless? I’m sort of hoping for agreement on the latter.

  • Don’t keep your hopes high, bloke: anything you deem as art is art. Especially if you are willing to pay for it from your own pocket:-O

  • bloke in spain

    Pay for it ?!?! Good grief! I’m trying to do it. But I don’t mind being labeled a painter & decorator. Artist’d be too much to bear.

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa and bloke in spain – interesting comments.

    I know what you mean bloke in spain.

    Like the old story from Classical Greece about rival painters – one says to the other “I have painted a new work” the other one says “where is it”, the first replies “over there” – and the second artist goes to move a curtain to get into the next room, only to find that the curtain and the door are the painting……

    I believe that Mr Ed likes this form of art – the Dutch (in recent times) were indeed very good at it (hence the name).

  • bloke in spain

    Is that because the trick of the eye makes then look like Frenchmen?

  • I like it too, Paul – a lot, especially when it is in a graffiti form. I love graffiti as it is as well.


    Artist’d be too much to bear


  • Jaded Voluntaryist


    Regarding your first point, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The only major thing I agree with Marx on is that, if you want to create a situation of social change, the middle classes are your enemy. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    In Britain middle class as a label is largely interchangeable with home-owning/mortgage class. The ability to move toward owning your own home is their defining feature, something they are keen to deny to those below them.

    A recently published report indicated that 2/3rds of first time buyers need to rely on parents for their deposit. Ergo, nearly everyone who is buying a house these days has parents who can afford to stump up 10-25% of the £185,000 average house price these days – i.e. the middle classes.

    If you abolished planning law, house supply would explode and avergae house price would collapse down to £50,000 or so, in keeping with much of the rest of the developed world. This would allow those inhabiting the lower renting classes to move toward home ownership themselves and become middle class. Those who already own such assets would never permit this, thus, when it comes to engendering social change, the self interest of the existing middle classes is your enemy.

  • Paul Marks


    Actually the Spectator had a big article last week about the how the “Middle Class” could no longer afford to have children – the high taxes and so on are not really in their interests. Politics is not really about material interests at all – after all (as Douglas Carswell is the most recent in a long line of people to point out) every major government scheme in the United Kingdom was created WITHOUT any groundswell of demand for it. The only “class” that has any major influence in the United Kingdom is a small group of academics, administrator and media types deciding what is “correct” and then pushing and pushing and pushing till it is done. After all most people do not really think about policy – why should they? One vote out of millions is not going to change anything (so ignorance is rational).

    This may not have been true when the “landed interest” still had real power (when only a few people decided who was the local MP and so on), but mass democracy handed over power to the intellectual elite – and was meant to do so (after all the people who actually supported it DESPISED the opinions of ordinary people – J.S. Mill and co would never have supported mass democracy if they thought the “masses” would really be in charge of it, it was always about putting themselves, the intellectuals, in charge).

    And the radical liberal intellectuals of the early 19th century were replaced by the Fabian intellectuals of the “Minority Report” and so on. The sort of people who are still basically in charge right now – for example the “Environment Agency” is their creation and they control it (regardless of the “Consevative” government) ditto most other things.

    Still to less controversial matters…

    Getting rid of planning law (although I support getting rid of it – and going back to Common Law on things such as causing problems for your neighbours) would not make house supply explode.

    Actually big housing developments go through on the nod (in fact the government subsidises them – massively).

    Planning law is not about stopping big housing developments (if one votes against them on a Planning Committee it just goes to the national Planning Inspectorate – and they find for the developer).

    Let me tell you what Planning Law is actually about.

    It is about putting ordinary people through the ringer when they (for example) want to convert a barn on a small holding their family have lived on for generations.

    But when an “Eco Town” is proposed all round them (in North Oxfordshire) – it goes through on the nod.

    Want a house price collapse?

    Then turn to such things as a HOUSING BENEFIT – which is a massive subsidy to landlords (allowing them tp put up rents knowing the government will pay), and causes people to go in for the “buy to rent” bubble.

    And look at the Bank of England – with its credit bubble support policy (going on for many years now).

  • Paul Marks

    By the way where the people did show independence of the “liberal” intellectuals – they turned to other methods.

    In Switzerland they (the intellectuals) ordered an invasion of those Cantons that resisted centralisation (1847) and then (once these Cantons were occupied) rigged every election (for example in Zug) for decades.

    Till state education had done its work.

    The justification?

    The population were ignorant – under the influence of the (old style) Roman Catholic Church.

    Like Rousseau of old – the intellectuals are in favour of democracy.

    As long as the people do as they are told.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Paul, housing developments don’t always go through on the nod. Building on so called “green belt” for example is explicitly forbidden. Small developers are also pretty much shut out of the process. It is very hard for a small developer to buy a plot of land and get permission to build a house on it.

    If the only requirement to build a house was legal ownership of the land on which it sits, housing supply would without a doubt go through the roof. You’d have people with big gardens cashing in left, right, and centre, never mind the big developers.

    That’s not to say you don’t have a point about housing benefit establishing price floors in the rental market, but I think preventing people from building houses when there is massive demand has a larger impact on the price of housing in the UK.

    And the middle classes are some of the voiciferous supporters of planning laws. Now you may well be right that the government doesn’t actually care what they thing, but there is no doubting that the classic NIMBY who doesn’t want people building houses, windmills* or fracking wells on “our countryside” is a middle class home owner. They already have a house and a job, and as far they are concerned everyone else can go swivvel. They want to keep the countryside as some massive amusement park where they can spend their Saturdays. The idea of people wanting to build houses and places of employment on top of their favourite picnic spot is offensive to them.

    * – While opposing windmills is good, they oppose them for the wrong reasons. They don’t think other people should be allowed to build things they offensive, even though those people own the land.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I apologise for the typos in the above post. The worst offenders should read “care what they think” and “build things they find offensive”.

  • Paul Marks

    JV – what you write reflects what I have read here (and on other sites).

    However, what I wrote reflects years of practical experience in local government.

    In economics I am an indeed a priori (not an “empirical”) person.

    But practical experience is not economics – it is more like history.

    And history is empirical – what happened is what happened.

    Someone wants to build houses on green fields? Even on a flood plain?

    Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Three Bags Full Sir. What subsidies for roads (and other such) as well Sir?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Paul I’d be inclined to think the Town and Country Planning Act makes building on flood plains more likely, not less.

    As it stands there are a very limited number of undeveloped sites where one can legally build anything. Some of these site are upon flood plains.

    If however you were free to build upon the massively more suitable “green field” site down the road, which is not subject to flooding, don’t you think people would be inclined to do so?

    The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 is the single most evil piece of law ever added to the UK’s books. At a single stroke, land owners ceased to own their land and needed to ask permission to do anything with it. If it and its antecedants were abolished, Britain would become a much freer place overnight.

  • Paul Marks

    JV – I totally agree that the Town and Country Planning Acts should be abolished.

    Do you remember “The Prisoner”?

    As you man know the strange place is real – created by rich eccentric on the coast of Wales.

    The man was a socialist (of the romantic Welsh sort – not the more Stalinist Scottish sort) and he was a great campaigner for the “Planning” Act.

    Shortly after his great victory in 1947 he got a visit from one of the new “Planning Inspectors” – he could no longer work on his creation without “Planning Permission”.

    In the United States Planning is called “zoning” (as you know) – of the large cities only Houston does not have it.

  • Paul Marks

    bloke in spain – of course it is French, but I always (perhaps wrongly) associate it with the Dutch.

  • Mr Ed

    I am sitting in an old ‘flood plain’ called Venice at the moment. It survives, just. Yesterday, I showed an acquaintance a brick-façaded church San Pantalon, which has a fantastic Illusionist ceiling, his reaction was to say ‘Fecking Hell’ (with a ‘u’). illusionist is not unlike trompe l’oeil, but is simply draws the eye in and appears to be 3D.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – as you now Venice is an monument to a radically “anti Green” attitude.

    It is not the product of a culture where Labour appointed quangocrats boast of how they would like to see a “limpet mine attached to every pumping station”, and an end to all dredging.

    P.S. – the BBC propaganda service is still defending the “Environment Agency” and blaming everything on “the cuts”.

    Although there was no shortage of money for the Environment Agency’s “eco projects”.