Forbes magazine reported recently there are at least 400 billionaires in the U.S. According to a Reuters report in 2005, there were at least 8.9 million U.S. households worth at least $1 million dollars:”This has led to a sizzling market for luxury cars like Maseratis and Porsches, as well as strong sales of yachts and luxury homes. … A booming U.S. economy has led to an explosion in the ranks of the wealthy unseen in a century, creating a surging market for luxury goods.” We see it all in Aspen, where luxury is defined in terms Thorstein Veblen described over a century ago in his acerbic book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In Aspen, Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” is a badge honor. So is his concept of “conspicuous waste.” Great wealth, Veblen said, is marked by the volume of natural resources a man or a family or a state can waste – much the way America burns oil. Even more illustrative of Veblen’s point is the waste of labor – like valets, and door openers, and work crews for second homes. Defining wealth by gross appetites goes back to Socrates, who referred to a “City of Pigs” as a state where material comfort is the sole basis for success. Pigs and men live in much the same way, fed and fattened to the point of comfortable complacency.Plato took the notion a step further when he described a state in “fever-heat,” where demand rises for things “beyond the necessities.” Here the “City of Pigs” morphs into the “luxurious state” replete with Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Costco, and other mega-retail chains designed to spew goods into the market by encouraging overconsumption. In order to meet this heightened demand, Plato said, the state must expand its borders by taking a “slice of our neighbor’s land.” When the neighboring state has that same goal, warned Plato, the result is war. Such is the price, he said, for the “unlimited accumulation of wealth.” A hopeful visionary I met last summer at an Aspen Institute seminar suggested that many wealthy young people he has met in America today are redefining their wealth. Material acquisition is passé, he said, as people put their resources into “saving the planet and living simply.” This redefinition of wealth has yet to sweep the country. It certainly has yet to sweep into Aspen, where we see the “luxurious state” in “fever-heat.” The war that Plato warned about is exactly what we’re doing in Iraq. The Greek philosophers had a much higher vision for us: “A life guided by intelligence,” admonished Aristotle, “is the best and most pleasant for man, inasmuch as intelligence, above all else, is man. Consequently, this kind of life is the happiest.”John Erskine, the father of the Great Books, went beyond Aristotle, insisting it is not just our happiness, but our moral obligation, to be intelligent: It is our duty as human beings to seek intelligence and realize our potential, he said. If the highest happiness could appeal to the wealthy, then a redefinition of wealth could allay material desires and bolster the kind of human intelligence necessary to extricate ourselves from the mess we’re in globally. A desire for intelligence might even trickle down to the masses. If my hopeful, visionary friend is right in saying that those with wealth are beginning to pursue the highest happiness while living a simple life, then we are finally approaching the Jeffersonian American ideal. Haven’t we seen enough of the “City of Pigs,” of fever-heat, of taking a slice from our neighbors, of war? Maybe … just maybe, Aristotle can win out over Veblen in the struggle between wisdom and waste. Our future depends upon it.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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