A Brilliant Bhagwati Insight About Rich and Poor

I realize not everyone will agree with me, but I think Bhagwati gets at something important over at Creative Capitalism:

2. Second, even if the poor do not buy into the upward mobility myth, they do not notice the riches of others. Why? Because the rich do not flaunt their wealth by practicing an ostentatious style of living. This was true of Simon Schama’s Dutch burghers (see The Embarrassment of Riches); and it has been true of the Jains in my home state of Gujerat, where billionaires often cannot be distinguished from the lower classes because they dress simply, drive small cars, etc. — as if they were puritans, which many of them are! You cannot resent what you do not see!

Bhagwati makes this sound arresting and zany, but there’s a deeper truth to it, which I allude to here. (I’ve become someone who cites myself, which is one of the three things I once told a friend would be a clear indication that I need to be slapped upside the head.)

Indeed, one can’t help but admire the Harrises, and other families who’ve chosen to ‘downshift’ their consumption, for putting their money where their mouth is. Whereas others on the liberal Left rue consumerism and inequality, they almost invariably expect the government to step in and solve the problem by, for example, hiking taxes on the rich. You’d think we were children who couldn’t help but work longer hours or buy expensive new automobiles in lieu of darning socks and eating thin gruel. What if the real inequality problem isn’t a technical problem? What if it really is a moral problem? Not moral as in ‘envy is a corrosive thing, so get over it’. Moral as in no tax hike will prevent people from building overlarge houses or custom cabinets at the expense of spending time with family and friends. A culture that is plagued by materialist excess won’t be cured by taxes. It can only be cured, if at all, through a revival of postmaterialist values — that is, a revival of hippie values.

Of course, I could have also referenced what Bhagwati terms “Jain-burgher” values, though I find Jain-burgher values riddled with internal tension, if not contradiction: unostentatious, yes, but also acquisitive to an often excessive degree. The pleasure of life is found in fruitful work, yes, but also in making friends and pursuing idle fancies. Or perhaps I’m projecting.