Montesquieu

Luxury is always pro­por­tio­nate to the ine­qua­lity of for­tu­nes. If wealth is equally sha­red within a state, there will be no luxury, for it is based solely on the conve­nien­ces which one affords one­self through the work of others.

For wealth to remain equally sha­red, the law must allot to eve­ryone no more than the phy­si­cal neces­si­ties. If anyone has more, some will spend, others will acquire, and ine­qua­lity will set in.

If we sup­pose phy­si­cal neces­si­ties equal to a given sum, the luxury of those who have only the neces­si­ties will equal zero ; he who has twice as much will pos­sess luxury equal to one ; he who has dou­ble the assets of the lat­ter will pos­sess luxury equal to three ; twice as much again will yield luxury equal to seven, in such a way that, the wealth of the fol­lo­wing per­son still assu­med to be twice that of his pre­de­ces­sor, luxury will grow by a fac­tor of two plus one, in this pro­gres­sion : 0, 1, 3, 7, 15, 31, 63, 127.

In Plato’s Republic luxury could have been exactly cal­cu­la­ted. There were four kinds of cens esta­bli­shed.1 The first was pre­ci­sely the limit where poverty ended, the second was dou­ble the first, the third tri­ple, the fourth qua­dru­ple. In the first cens, luxury was equal to zero ; it was equal to one in the second, to two in the third, to three in the fourth ; and it thus fol­lo­wed the arith­me­tic pro­por­tion.

Considering the luxury of various peo­ples with res­pect to each other, in each state it is in com­pound pro­por­tion to the ine­qua­lity of for­tu­nes among the citi­zens and the ine­qua­lity of wealth of the various sta­tes. In Poland, for exam­ple, there is an extreme ine­qua­lity of for­tu­nes, but the poverty of the whole pre­vents there being as much luxury as in a weal­thier state.

Luxury is again pro­por­tio­nate to the size of cities and espe­cially of the capi­tal, so it is in com­pound pro­por­tion to the wealth of the state, the ine­qua­lity of pri­vate for­tu­nes, and the num­ber of men assem­bled in cer­tain pla­ces.

The more men there are toge­ther, the more vain they are and the more they feel rising inside them the desire to stand out in small things.2 If they are in such great num­ber that most are unk­nown to each other, the desire to dis­tin­guish one­self dou­bles, because there is more expec­ta­tion of suc­cee­ding. Luxury gives this expec­ta­tion ; eve­ryone adopts the signs of the sta­tion above his own. But by dint of wan­ting to dis­tin­guish him­self, all become equal, and no one any lon­ger stands out ; since eve­ryone wants to make peo­ple look, no one attracts any notice.

There results from all this an ove­rall disad­van­tage. Those who excel in a pro­fes­sion place on their art the price they wish ; the smal­lest talents fol­low that exam­ple ; needs and means are no lon­ger com­men­su­rate. When I am for­ced to sue, I must be able pay a lawyer ; when I am ill, I must be able to have a phy­si­cian.

Some have thought that the gathe­ring of so many peo­ple into a capi­tal dimi­ni­shed trade, because men are no lon­ger sepa­ra­ted by a cer­tain dis­tance. I do not think so : peo­ple have more desi­res, more needs, and more whims when they are toge­ther.

The first cens was the hereditary lots of land, and Plato did not want anyone to have more holdings than thrice the hereditary lots. See his Laws, book V.

In a large city, says the author [Bernard Mandeville] of the Fable of the Bees (vol. I, p. 133), one dresses above one’s rank in order to be thought more than one is by the multitude. That is a pleasure for a feeble mind almost as great as that of realizing one’s desires.