Luxury Belief Class: Why do millionaire kids embrace moralizing activism?
For all their self-professed care about others, the reason they are doing it is to parade their elite status, derived from a false sense of moral superiority.
Have you ever wondered why is it that some of the most devout followers of the modern age "progressive" beliefs are the children of the wealthy? It is visible not only among the rich but across entire societies as relative wealth elevates more people into greater comforts (hence the dominance of left-wing ideas in the academia - both among students as well as their teachers).
You may counter that this has always been the case among the youth - particularly among university students, and that these beliefs are not set in stone and tend to change with time - and you would be largely correct.
Most of the 20-somethings have to come to terms with reality at some point, since their parents - however comfortable they may be - usually cannot bankroll their children's existences into infinity.
Once you have to go to work, climb the ladder, pay your bills, take a mortgage, start a family, raise your own kids, you become more acutely aware of the realities of life and what makes it good - and you appreciate good governance and reasonable, responsible people who make it possible.
And while the mindsets of modern, more affluent middle class may be shifting in favor of the left, bread & butter issues are still important to most people.
This, however, is often not so with the children of the wealthiest, who don't have the same sense of urgency and can live their Peter Pan fantasy lives for many years after they graduate.
Two quite extreme examples of the results it has produced in Singapore are Jolovan Wham and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh.
The former is a notorious troublemaker, breaking the laws of the country at every opportunity, so he can get himself jailed and play a martyr sacrificing himself in an uneven battle against the "regime". Notably, it's not for the lack of funds that he ends up behind bars, as his father founded, among several other businesses, Goldheart Jewellery.
The latter is an equally notorious race-baiter, who speaks of Singapore as "soulless" and "racist", even though his immigrant Malayalam Indian family has achieved a multimillionaire status in the city-state, allowing him to complete two degrees in America while his parents were busy expanding a future S$40 million mansion, which he only moved out of 3 years ago at age 40.
He labels himself a "plebeian", railing against the "elites" despite coming from a family that isn't just a part of the richest 1% but a fraction of that percent. All of that just as he swapped the swanky family bungalow for a million dollar Pasir Ris' executive condo with sea view, 1000+ sqft. of which he inhabits with his wife and cats, while getting reacquainted (by his own admission) with washing his own clothes for the first time since his university days.
Surely both of them are experts on bread & butter issues and truly understand the realities of life of the working people...
So, why do they do this? What's this all about?
Let me borrow a few quotes from an excellent article published on Quillette in November 2019, authored by Rob Henderson, a young psychologist collecting his observations from the years he spent at Yale - himself an orphan and military veteran, who spent his childhood in foster homes and served in the army to earn himself admission to the university:
"I was bewildered when I encountered a new social class at Yale four years ago: the luxury belief class. My confusion wasn’t surprising given my unusual background. When I was two years old, my mother was addicted to drugs and my father abandoned us. I grew up in multiple foster homes, was then adopted into a series of broken homes, and then experienced a series of family tragedies. Later, after a few years in the military, I went to Yale on the GI Bill. On campus, I realized that luxury beliefs have become fashionable status symbols. Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
In the past, people displayed their membership of the upper class with their material accoutrements. But today, luxury goods are more affordable than before. And people are less likely to receive validation for the material items they display. This is a problem for the affluent, who still want to broadcast their high social position. But they have come up with a clever solution. The affluent have decoupled social status from goods, and re-attached it to beliefs.
Human beings become more preoccupied with social status once our physical needs are met. In fact, research reveals that sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) is more important for well-being than socioeconomic status. Furthermore, studies have shown that negative social judgment is associated with a spike in cortisol (hormone linked to stress) that is three times higher than non-social stressful situations. We feel pressure to build and maintain social status, and fear losing it.
It seems reasonable to think that the downtrodden might be most interested in obtaining status and money. But this is not the case. Inhabitants of prestigious institutions are even more interested than others in prestige and wealth. For many of them, that drive is how they reached their lofty positions in the first place. Fueling this interest, they’re surrounded by people just like them—their peers and competitors are also intelligent status-seekers. They persistently look for new ways to move upward and avoid moving downward. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”
And indeed, a recent piece of research supports this: it is the upper class who are the most preoccupied with gaining wealth and status. In their paper, the researchers conclude, “relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have a greater desire for wealth and status…it is those who have more to start with (i.e., upper-class individuals) who also strive to acquire more wealth and status.” Plainly, high-status people desire status more than anyone else.
Furthermore, other research has found that absolute income does not have much effect on general life satisfaction. An increase in relative income, on the other hand, has a positive effect. Put differently, making more money isn’t important. What’s important is making more than others. As the researchers put it:
Increasing an individual’s income will increase his or her utility only if ranked position also increases and will necessarily reduce the utility of others who will lose rank…[which] may explain why increasing the incomes of all may not raise the happiness of all, even though wealth and happiness are correlated within a society at a given point in time.
You might think that, for example, rich kids at elite universities would be happy because their parents are in the top one per cent of income earners. And they will soon join their parents in this elite guild. But remember, they’re surrounded by other members of the one per cent. Their social circle, their Dunbar number, consists of 150 baby millionaires. Jordan Peterson has discussed this phenomenon. Citing figures from his experience teaching at Harvard in the 1990s, Peterson noted that a substantial proportion of Ivy League graduates go on to obtain a net worth of a million dollars or more by age 40. And yet, he observes, this isn’t enough for them. Not only do top university graduates want to be millionaires-in-the-making; they also want the image of moral righteousness. Peterson underlines that elite graduates desire high status not only financially, but morally as well. For these affluent social strivers, luxury beliefs offer them a new way to gain status."
Let's dissect it:
Upper-classes desire higher status more than the lower-classes. I.e. the more you have the more you want.
However, at the level of wealth they were born into achieving relative progress vs. their peers is difficult or impossible. At the same time, luxury goods become accessible to more people.
Therefore higher status is now achieved not through money but vocal moral righteousness.
In addition, their behavior is equally driven by a fear of losing status. With great wealth comes great responsibility that they are afraid to bear. If they are less successful than their parents, it would mean they failed to live up to the expectations.
So, they often pick a different career path and ostensibly reject wealth, choosing to identify with the masses instead (even if it's not really possible). Parading moral superiority is safe and easy, as it comes with few risks. Who can blame you for having "good intentions" after all?
The problem isn't only that they are being hypocritical - seemingly caring about some greater ideals or well-being of other people, while really being driven by their fragile egos. It's also that they are peddling ideas that are often disastrously harmful for the lower-class people, who lack the safety net of family wealth.
Henderson brings up a good example of the "sexual freedom" counterculture of the 60s and 70s, embraced and popularized by the elites - which could afford to experiment and move on later, still forming happy families, while it led to destruction of the nuclear family among the lower-classes.
Back in 1960 95% of children lived with both of their parents in all families. By 2005 it dropped to 85% for the affluent families - and to just 30% among the poor. Loose social standards, championed by the elites as a way of parading their social status throughout their youth, have led to demographic catastrophes among those who lack the wealth and family support to fix their lives later on.
Similarly, when someone like Jolovan or Sudhir gives his recommendations it's not from a position of an average Singaporean but a spoiled, elite, rich brat who can afford to keep failing until his 40s and not worry about it.
When they attack the legal order of the country, denigrate its culture or national identity, or deliberately bring race into their commentary, to inflame hostile ethnic sentiments just to launch them at the government, they're doing it from their comfy, guarded apartments or houses, where they would never be affected either by the growing hostility between people or economic downturn should sound governance of this country be derailed.
They have soft cushions filled with millions of dollars earned by their parents to fall on - while the the rest of the society would crash, burn and suffer.
These people do not care about anybody other than themselves.
When Sudhir asks for donations to his blog (he really does) so he "can keep it free", it's not because he needs the money, but because it's his way of reassuring himself that he's not a failure. He doesn't derive his personal value from the creative process itself but through the public vote of confidence these donations show.
As you can see, it's driven by rather pitiable insecurity, likely rooted in the fear of being a failure despite being born into wealth greater than 99.999...% of humanity.
At the same time, however, it's also a way of showing everybody else "I am better than you". Here's another quote from Henderson's article:
"Thorstein Veblen proposed that the wealthy flaunt these symbols not because they are useful, but because they are so pricey or wasteful that only the wealthy can afford them, which is why they’re high-status indicators. And this still goes on. A couple of winters ago it was common to see students at Yale and Harvard wearing Canada Goose jackets. Is it necessary to spend $900 to stay warm in New England? No. But kids weren’t spending their parents’ money just for the warmth. They were spending the equivalent of the typical American’s weekly income ($865) for the logo. Likewise, are students spending $250,000 at prestigious universities for the education? Maybe. But they are also spending it for the logo.
This is not to say that elite colleges don’t educate their students, or that Canada Goose jackets don’t keep their wearers warm. But top universities are also crucial for induction into the luxury belief class. Take vocabulary. Your typical middle-class American could not tell you what “heteronormative” or “cisgender” means. But if you visit Harvard, you’ll find plenty of rich 19-year-olds who will eagerly explain them to you. When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is “I was educated at a top college.”
Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.”
Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.
The author Quentin Bell, in On Human Finery, wrote “Try to look like the people above you; if you’re at the top, try to look different from the people below you.”
The elite’s conspicuous display of their luxury beliefs falls into this pattern. Their beliefs are emulated by others, sending them off in search of new beliefs to display. The affluent can’t risk looking like hoi polloi, after all."
Ironically, then, as much as they wish to display their empathy for the less fortunate, their behavior is not driven by a will to effect any change - if they wanted to do it they would have used the resources at their disposal to actually accomplish something.
No, for all their public disdain for the "elites" their real goal is to simply redefine what "elite" means - and that they represent it now.
That they are smarter, more morally superior, "better people", ostensibly rejecting displays of wealth and fetishizing poverty, even though they don't really know what it means.
But through their self-centered, selfish behavior they are propagating ideas harmful to everybody else - which they themselves will not be able to fix or counteract in any way, since they have no practical experience at doing anything other than making a lot of noise about themselves.