Throughout my time at an elite liberal arts college, I noticed my peers—especially women—quickly adopted popular political positions on social media. More often than not, shared positions were not accompanied by much substance. There was never any in-person discussion about the issues, real-world promotion of the cause, or critical engagement in classrooms. Exposure consisted of “educating” followers with flashy, colorful infographics.
Today, Americans are more privileged than ever. We have instant access to any good under the sun that we have been “influenced” to buy, and social media algorithms reward users who adopt trends early. The demand for and availability of status-enhancing luxury goods (or fake “dupes”) has surpassed the purely material. Motivated by the need to keep up, people who can afford the requisite products turn to ideas to display status.
I first came across this idea when reading Louise Perry’s new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. In 1899, American economist Thorstein Veblen introduced his hypothesis to explain why some consumer goods didn’t follow the simple law of supply and demand. As his theory goes, when the price of a good increases, higher demand follows (rather than consumer demand and limited supply driving up price).
Veblen goods are luxury items whose value comes from their ability to confer status upon the owner. For example, in 1990, the medium Chanel Classic Flap Bag retailed for around $1,150 and now goes for upwards of $9,000. This spike in price is not simply due to inflation, but because people see Chanel purses as a way to signal their status. The limited access and perceived social standing accompanying ownership suggest buyers will accept the price increase and even desire the handbag more as it goes up in price. Basically, when companies increase prices, such goods seem more exclusive, and ownership status becomes more desirable. Social media helps drive this phenomenon because luxury goods can now be broadcast to millions, making them something that will increase follower counts and content engagement.
As with tangible luxury goods in the Veblen model, as ideas become widely adopted, “elites” who have a large following are incentivized to adopt more extreme positions to maintain their status. Elites are free to become as extreme as they want because their status insulates them from the need to address the full societal and political implications of their beliefs. Hence the term “luxury beliefs.”
With comparably easy access to goods, those craving elite status now signal their exclusivity (and virtue) by adhering to belief systems that the poor, middle class, or simply realistic cannot “afford” to have. Psychologist Rob Henderson proposes that upper classes now adopt “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” Henderson explains, “upper class people don a luxury belief to separate themselves from the lower class” but these views produce “real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people.”
Just like trends incentivize early adoption, those with luxury beliefs always seek new, more extreme ideas to demonstrate their status. Policies made in an ivory tower insulate elites from the trickle-down consequences. They can comfortably revel in social status upgrades without facing the subsequent increase in crime, poverty, or misery.
When the slogan “sex work is work” becomes policy, sex trafficking victims in California can no longer be approached by concerned police officers. When “trans women are women” opens women-only spaces to biological men, women are subject to harassment and abuse. When “kids in cages” informs closing detention centers, elites don’t acknowledge the strain on social services in border states until plucky governors ship them to Martha’s Vineyard. When “defund the police” causes reductions in police funding, violent crime rises in the inner city first.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with believing in something. But beliefs have consequences because they determine the course of activism, policy, and allocation of resources. In an age where thoughts are instantly broadcast to thousands, the loudest and most extreme voices have disproportionate social power. The social capital tied to certain ideologies can increase our willingness to dogmatically magnify trendy beliefs without considering their human impact.
In my own life, I try to avoid adopting luxury beliefs by understanding the “why” of my beliefs. Knowing the “why” gives me confidence when engaging politically but simultaneously grounds me in epistemological humility. I am confident because I understand how a policy or idea connects with my worldview, and I become humbler because I know the limits of my knowledge on the subject matter.
Reading political newsletters from various media groups, volunteering, worshiping, engaging in political conversations without the intent to convince anyone I am “right,” researching outcomes of policies that interest me, and not mindlessly reposting trendy graphics on social media enables me to encounter multiple perspectives at a deeper level. This process ensures I am not saying something because of how I want people to perceive me; I am saying something because it connects with my understanding of the world.
Social media can have great benefits—whether raising money after natural disasters or simply keeping up with family and friends. However, just like we spend time deciding whether a Chanel bag is a worthy investment for our closet, we should evaluate whether certain ideas are worth the investment. Thorstein Veblen recognized that luxury goods come with added costs. Likewise, we should be mindful of the costs associated with beliefs and remember who is on the receiving end of policy. Only then can we ensure that our beliefs are both sincere and in the best interests of those they purport to help.