Elegance Does Not Have to Break the Bank

Elegance Does Not Have to Break the Bank
An auction house employee poses behind a pair of large William and Mary Silver Candlesticks from the collection of late art leader Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, in central London, on Dec. 16, 2014. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

Tiffany & Co. sells a set of sterling silver candlesticks for $5,000. They are extremely fancy and sterling (unlike silver plated) is hard to come by these days. So maybe that price is worth it.

After all, such candlesticks are the very thing that every cat burglar from history steals and puts in the burlap sack. Maybe I’m misremembering but I think I recall that such was featured in the movie/musical “Oliver!” from the old days.

Lots of people put these treasures on their wedding wishlist. Some people shell out for these treasures.

There’s just one issue. Looking through eBay we find a pair of sterling candlesticks that are even more beautiful for $50. That’s 0.1 percent of the retail price. There is no deprecation of the quality of these things. They last for many centuries. And yes, they are wonderful to have.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would pay $5,000 instead of $50 for the same item.

The reason must trace to an opaque thing that drives much of the American consumer marketplace. That thing is class. The perception is that classy people shop at Tiffany’s, not eBay.

It hardly stops there. This issue pervades everything in the marketplace. It’s why people shop at Whole Foods rather than Kroger much less the immigrant-run grocery on the other side of the tracks. It’s why people shell out many thousands for suits at the downtown men’s shop rather than snag a better item for $100 from Etsy or eBay.

It’s why people buy a thing from a Christie’s auction rather than hunt down treasures at the thrift store or flea market. It’s not just that people want to save on search costs. It’s because they want to tell their friends that they won the auction at Sotheby’s. No one wants to be “that person” who digs through rubbish at Goodwill for their discounted item, even if it is the same or roughly comparable.

Is this a uniquely American habit? Maybe, I’m not sure. But I find it all extremely strange. If you are looking for broccoli, why does it matter whether you buy from the el cheapo corner market run by Bengalis or purchase it at twice the price from the high-end grocery that serenades you with Schubert as you shop?

It does not matter to me. For me, it’s the opposite: I take personal pride in bargains and feel ripped off paying retail. Hardly anyone seems to agree with me however. That’s fine but I worry sometimes that people don’t know what they are giving up and what they are missing.

For example, on eBay you can get perfect and gorgeous linen tablecloths, sheets, and towels. Why would you pay a hundred times as much for cotton products from Neiman Marcus? I simply cannot understand it.

Part of this has to do with a massive American habit of confusing money with class, and, further, assuming that all problems in life can be solved by purchasing the most expensive product.

Neither is true.

By the way, Americans are famous for this and always have been.

In Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” an American family moves into an old English house that is haunted. A ghost leaves scary things around, like staining the carpet with blood that cannot be cleaned. The Americans keep trying various fancy products on the stain but are otherwise not alarmed in the slightest. Even when the ghost rattles his chains in front of their bed, they tell it to quiet down and go to bed.

It’s all pretty funny and illustrates how the driving ethos of the Americans in the story is a practical rationalism and dedication to technology and products to make the world better. Remember that this was in the 1880s, a time when America led the world in innovation and consumer-based marketing.

It’s not so charming a century and a half later.

These days Americans are suckers for anything with the stamp of approval from any reputable company promising to bring heaven to earth. That’s why we join gyms rather than exercise, make endless purchases of new clothes but never quite look elegant, and why we are such easy prey for vulture capitalists selling us terrible things to solve problems that could otherwise be fixed with a bit of self-discipline.

For example, there is reason to be alarmed by the wild popularity of new weight-loss drugs. No one knows the long-term effects of these or even if they reliably produce durable results without greater costs. People pay thousands of dollars to allow themselves to be experimented on rather than simply dedicate themselves to a solid three-day fast followed by a diet of one meal per day. That’s too painful.

We are always looking for the easy way out and ascend the social ladder or at least believe that this is what is happening. So we are willing to pay unthinkable amounts of money to avoid dealing with reality, so long as doing so permits us to brag about where and how we got our goods and services.

Once you let go of this weird class-based anxiety and instead go for elegance, health, and truth above cultural signaling and consumption, everything in life falls into place. Rather than pay tens of thousands for custom curtains, you can have the same or better for hundreds instead. Once you get the hang of eBay, you can never go back to shopping at Bloomingdale’s.

It’s the same with literature. We have Gutenberg.org to give you a lifetime of astonishing reading for free. Remember that before you spend a dime at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The glory of the internet is that it makes available all the best literary treasures for free. Why do people not use these services? Probably for the reason I mentioned above: people think you have to pay for quality things and buy only from the best places. It’s all nonsense but people believe it anyway.

And think about how American politics has shaped up to be little more than a class-based consumption good. The people who brag of their support for Joe Biden are not truly saying that they think his policies are good or that the regime is competent. They are signaling to others that they are not part of the dirty and ignorant tribe that supports the other guy.

It’s also why the same progressive managerial class came to support completely irrational and ineffective policies such as mask and vaccine mandates. They didn’t actually believe that these would mitigate disease spread. They were merely flexing in the direction of class identification: this is what my people believe!

In politics and the consumer marketplace, we should all be wiser shoppers, putting value ahead of expense and truth ahead of class identity. To be sure, shopping smart requires some advanced knowledge of the product and insight into what is and is not quality. That means research. Many people feel too insecure about their own understanding and so would rather outsource that to a salesman to be the authority. This is a huge error but it is incredibly common.

These are tough times for family finances. Let this be the moment to let go of snobbery and the illusion that spending more means ascending up the social ladder. Choose elegance and frugality instead.

And the same with political allegiance. If your tribe is pushing an agenda that is fashionable (eating bugs, ending fossil fuels, instituting a social-credit system) but will otherwise decimate the human experience of life on earth, perhaps it is time to rethink.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.