In a Partial Defense of the Bourbons
Prof. Donald Boudreaux dumps on poor old Louis XVI as an “absolute monarch” who “created no wealth,” but rather was a “predator” who “destroyed wealth,” one assumes, by taxation.
While I am no great defender of the Bourbons, apart from their having helped the American Revolution, I believe the history of that period, and ours, is a bit more complex than that.
Whether ill gotten or not, a major motivation for the ostentatious display of wealth in a given social system is to establish status and hierarchy. A great virtue of the American system is that it has made it possible, for example, for virtually everyone to own an automobile as a means of transportation
It, therefore, becomes essential to establish the car as something much more than that! An Acura model has the only overall 5 star safety rating, but that brand (really a spruced up Honda Accord) has never achieved the status of a Lexus, Mercedes, Rolls, or Jaguar, and is rather boring because it is never in the repair shop as much either, which makes it something of a best-buy in the luxury category.
One could extend that example indefinitely to other items, the more related to “conspicuous consumption,” the better – that are not really important as an essential part of a decent lifestyle. Good ‘ol Thorstein V. called it “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” and I have always had a certain sympathy for the wealthy caught in that cultural syndrome, even if their wealth was in some cases a bit tainted.
The Bourbons were caught in a very different situation. The great historian Carroll Quigley, for one, pointed out in The Evolution of Civilizations (for which I am proud to have contributed a Bibliographical Note) that the French system was not that centralized, absolute structure argued by many historians, but rather much less centralized than the emerging British system of that time.
In short, the French system was much more feudal than the British, with the aristocrats in the provinces having considerably more power.
While the Parliament in GB might ameliorate some of the absolute power of the British monarch after the English Revolution, it was also part of a very powerful emerging British “State System,” including a much more efficient tax system with which, in Boudreaux’s terminology, the State could expropriate “wealth.”
The on-going fiscal problems of the French State were a reflection of its still relatively feudal condition. The ostentatious nature of Versailles, ironically, was in no small part an effort to partially curtail the real power of the aristocracy by bringing them there for fun and games for extended periods, thus luring them away from their provincial power bases.
The real centralization of State Power in France was, of course, brought about by the French Revolution and Napoleon.
Interestingly, the French system can be seen in an even purer form in the Tokugawa system in Japan at roughly the same time, a brilliant plan to break the power of the feudal aristocracy by keeping them at court for part of the year in a carefully thought out virtually checker-board pattern, thus keeping feudal lords from cooperating against the center.
The story of “The 47 Ronins,” Japan’s greatest story of the period is a magnificent recounting of that system, and draws new versions each year, even today.
So, I would suggest, Louis’ power was less than absolute, and he was having to try all sorts of schemes to make ends meet, all of which rather exhausted a guy also keeping a few mistresses on the side.
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William Marina - 1/5/2005
I totally agree with you about beauty.
But, the situation in question related more to your type II, power.
I am not certain aristocrats necessarily understood beauty more than the rest of us; some could be pretty crass.
I have always liked John Adams definition of an aristorcrat as someone who could influence at least one other person, whatever the issue.
Jeanine Ring - 1/4/2005
I'd like to add my 15c, if I may:
In all of this discussion of displayed wealth, I see little distinction between:
I) Luxury as the desire for ornamentation and beauty, which wealth and aristocracy have historically made possible, both as a form of artistic creation and an expression of individual personality. This seems to me a good thing, and I highly stand in favor of 'luxury' in this sense as a Pagan good against Christian or peasant morality and its socialist heirs. The fact that capitalism makes feasible for the broad mass of individuals to realize any talents they may desire to cultivate in the decorative artsm in a manner previous reserved for aristocrats and their patrons, should be much applauded.
II) Luxury as the desire for social and class status, including as a road to consequent power. This to me sounds like an irrational and vicious goal; inauthentic and second-handed, and a valuation of wealth over human quality especially cruel to individuals of stature of scarce means. And 'tis destructive of beauty; such is the mindset that asks if a piece of jewelry is set with a 'real' diamond instead of asking whether it is beautiful. The corruption of the value of beauty into an index of social influence is in my book a forgetting of beauty's essential nature, including its practical nature of adding aesthetic depth to other human affairs. 'Keeping up with the Joneses' is the antithesis of existence as a woman or man of self-made soul.
I think there is a such thing as as authentic response to beautiful things- this is the rational conception of luxuries, but this response is chronically confused with a *comparative* goal of sporting the prettiest jewels, furniture, or mansion; this is not rational. A person of artistic sensitivity would strive to choose personal presentation, posessions and domicile by their own judgement, with no attention to style and social class.
I personally find it sad that many individualists, observing that the personal and decorative arts are culturally very mired in popularity contests, implicitly cede this aspect of human life to collectivists, either by conforming to the latest fashions in style they would never do in politics, or by disdaining a sense of courtly presentation altogether and taking on the persona of the Dilbertish computer nerd.
Unfortunately, American culture, for all its obsession with style, has little love for real luxury; witness that the socially respected professions such as law, medicine, and real estate precisely aim to express wealth with the most status consistent with the least color and glitter (a good reason to avoid going into respected professions). Witness as evidence that those cultural institutions that do show color and glitter- from the Rave scene to the night club (I could mention others), are considered morally suspect and less than respectable; and the loudest ones- such as Hollywood and the gay male subculture- are considered culturally subversive. It is also worth noting that in thewe realms, where luxury is to some degree a matter of individual instead of collective expression, there is a lack of the moral respectability than our culture grants to the the pricelessly ugly suit sitting behinf the pricelessly ugly desk of an elite executive. Our 'respectable' luxury, like that of the Soviets, is an ugly attempt to hide its luzurious nature.
Thus I must say, that for all of the absurdities and cruelties of aristocratic social maneuvering; they are far less preposterous than the bourgeois kind, which manages to combine the aristocrat's snobbery about propriety and status with a peasant's disdain for 'frivolous' pleasure and luxury. In some realms, our Calvinist-afflicted shift to capitalism and modernity was not an unmarred boon; the free market should have come in with an exaltation of aristocratic luxury universalized as a cosmopolitan human value, but instead what happened was the elimination of an aristocracy and the rise of a new, ugly, bourgeois system of status seeking. When one considers that the luxurious is socially very hard to distinquish from the economically unproductive liberal arts and humanities, this is a serious problem.
An honest asceticism which seeks an intense spiritual fouces via the disdain of worldly vanities commands with me some respect; so does a vain and pompous court that nevertheless does display Earthly beauty. But the bourgeois status-conscious blandness hits the phlegmatic bottom of my aesthetic Nolan chart.
Personally, I support an ideal of an individualist sense of luxury, which prizes experimentation, subtlety, and proud expression using of the best means avaliable, and which refuses the twin socialized cosciences of status-seeking and austerity.