Why I Am Sceptical About 'Luxury Beliefs'
Rob Henderson’s essay ‘Luxury beliefs are the latest status symbol for rich Americans’ made waves when it was published in The New York Post back in 2019. The basic argument is this: some beliefs, such as believing in white privilege, scepticism about monogamy, believing that religion is irrational, and so on, are beliefs that are mainly held by upper-class whites as a way to signal status to other upper-class whites. While in the past, the upper-class used luxury goods as a way of signalling their status, the increased availability of those goods has meant that elites have moved away from items and towards beliefs as a way of signalling that they are not lower class. Henderson writes:
Because, like with diamond rings or designer clothes of old, upper-class people don a luxury belief to separate themselves from the lower class. These beliefs, in turn, produce real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people, further widening the divide.
I am fairly sceptical of this argument, as I have been when people generally claim that certain (usually socially liberal) views are held almost exclusively by rich white people. I think there’s an abundance of data out there that shows that basically any kind of person can hold basically any kind of view - here’s a cool example of this you should try out, where you have to guess which political party a British person voted for on the basis of their demographic information and a few of their views.
The evidence Henderson produces in his essay is anecdotal: he talks about how a classmate at Yale from a privileged background claimed that monogamy was outdated, even though she had been raised in a traditionally monogamous family, and even though she planned on having a traditional family. Astute readers will note that given Henderson did his undergraduate degree at Yale, and then went on to do a PhD at Cambridge, it isn’t particularly surprising that the people he meets who hold ‘luxury beliefs’ tend to be rich and white, even if he doesn’t have a typical elite background (which he doesn’t).
The data we do have on these issues isn’t totally comprehensive, but I think we can say with a lot of confidence that the views given as examples of ‘luxury beliefs’ by Henderson are not anywhere near exclusively held by rich white people.
Affluent whites are the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege.
Here’s some data on white privilege:
I think Henderson’s claims here are immensely unlikely to be true. White people are consistently less likely to say that white people ‘benefit from advantages in society that black people do not have’. The chart above (taken from here) shows that about 46% of white people think that white people either benefit ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’, whereas the figure for black people is 92%. This holds true when controlling for Party ID, as can be seen above (white Democrats are less likely to believe in white privilege than black Democrats, and the same holds true for Republicans).
Here’s another poll from YouGov that shows the income break-down of views on white supremacy. My prior here was that richer people would be slightly more likely to say that white supremacy was a serious problem than poorer people, but not a lot more likely. In fact, the opposite is true. Poorer people are more likely to say that white supremacy is a very serious problem, and richer people are more likely to say that white supremacy is not a very serious problem (or not a problem at all). I would be interested in looking at this data when controlling for race and seeing if the correlation holds, but from first glance it certainly seems evident that taking the view that white supremacy is a big problem in the US is not held predominantly by rich white people.
Polling on monogamy isn’t particularly common - but there are some polls we can draw on. Here’s a YouGov America poll from January 2020 - the data isn’t presented in a way that I can easily screenshot it and show the cross-tabs, but the main thing to know is this: 63% of respondents earning over $80,000 per year say that their ideal relationship is ‘completely monogamous’, compared to only 50% of those earning under $40,000 per year; 5% of respondents earning over $80,000 per year say that their idea relationship is ‘completely non-monogamous’, compared to 6% of those earning under $40,000 per year. A caveat here - these subsamples in polling are notoriously noisy, so certainly do not accept it as fact that richer people are more likely to want to be monogamous than poorer people. I do think, however, that you can take it as true that there probably isn’t a clear trend where richer people are more likely to embrace non-monogamy than poorer people.
Well, how about education and race? Perhaps it’s not the case that rich people are more likely to want to be less monogamous, but that white people and highly educated people do embrace these beliefs as a cultural marker. With education, I was surprised to find that again, more highly-educated people are more likely to say that their ideal relationship is monogamous than less-educated people (72% vs 47% - actually a pretty big differecence)! With race, it’s the same story: 64% of white people say that their ideal relationship is completely monogamous, compared to 44% of black people, and 38% of Hispanics. This was honestly surprising to me, my prior was that Henderson would be correct that more highly-educated people would be more likely to embrace polygamy. I’d actually be interested to know what’s going on here - if you have an idea (other than the data just being bad), let me know in the comments.
With atheism, I think Henderson’s claim that rich, white people are more likely not to believe in God is basically correct. Pew Research found in 2016 that about 30% of atheists earn over $100,000 - compared to 19% of all US Adults. Similarly, as you can see in the table above, about 11% of white people don’t believe in God, compared to 6% of Latinos only 2% of black people (!) - note that Asians are more likely to be atheists than White people. These are pretty good sample sizes and we can probably take away from this that rich, white people genuinely are more likely to be atheists than most ethnic minority groups.
So, what to make of all this?
I think it is very unlikely that the claims in the original essay are true. I haven’t read much of Henderson’s other work, so it’s also possible that he’s heard these objections before and has some response. He makes this claim:
Affluent, educated people raised by two married parents are more likely than others to believe monogamy is outdated, marriage is a sham or that all families are the same.
He doesn’t cite any data, but he could have some that I haven’t seen. But even if it were the case that affluent, educated people were more likely to reject monogamy (the data I have shown above indicates that they probably aren’t more likely to reject it), it isn’t sufficient to show that they’re slightly more likely to hold those beliefs, I think for those beliefs to serve as an indicator that someone is rich and highly educated, rich and highly educated people would have to be significantly more likely to hold those beliefs. From every data source I’ve seen, they aren’t significantly more likely to hold those beliefs. So this claim seems likely to be incorrect:
These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
There is a point worth quickly mentioning before it comes up in the comments, which is that in Henderson’s conception of luxury beliefs does include the idea that luxury beliefs will trickle down from the highly-educated elites to ‘ordinary people’, and so there is a point at which we would expect non-elites to be just as likely (as more likely) to hold former luxury beliefs as elites are. However, there is nothing to indicate to me that Henderson believes that opposition to monogamy or belief in white privilege have already lost their status as ‘luxury beliefs’ and trickled down to working-class people - if I’m wrong, feel free to point out where he’s talked about how opposition to monogamy is no longer a luxury belief.
Am I wrong?
At the same time, I’m sort of sceptical about my own arguments. I wrote everything above the dividing line a while ago and scheduled it, and then I started thinking about it again, and I think there are some problems with what I’m saying. What prompted my reconsideration was this review of Amia Srinivasan’s book of essays The Right to Sex. Here’s something that Srinivasan wrote in response to Ross Douthat:
Monogamous marriage, the heteronormative family and norms of chastity are...parts of a patriarchal infrastructure designed to secure men’s access to women’s bodies and minds.
When I read this, it seemed the epitome of what Henderson is talking about when he argues for the existence of ‘Luxury Beliefs’. Admittedly, Srinivasan is not white, but otherwise (assuming she’s reasonably rich, which seems likely given she’s a best-selling author and a professor at Oxford) she fits the bill - a highly educated elite talking about the problems with monogamy. So, what’s going on here?
I’m not entirely sure, but my hunch is that the signal of being an elite doesn’t really come from the belief itself, but the manner in which the belief is communicated. It can’t be that scepticism about monogamy or belief in white privilege are themselves indicators that someone is an elite, because the data indicates that poor, non-white and less educated people are just as likely to hold those views. But the style in which rich, highly-educated people typically talk about their beliefs is, in my experience, very distinctive.
And upon reading another of Henderson’s essays in Quillette, I think he may even be sympathetic to this view. He writes (among other things indicating he is sympathetic to this view, including specifically mentioning the use of the word ‘heteronormative’):
When an affluent person … uses the term “white privilege,” they are engaging in a status display.
Note the fact that rather than suggest that a belief in white privilege is the indicator of status, he argues that using the term ‘white privilege’ is what lets people know you’re affluent. There isn’t, as far as I know, any polling on whether richer people are more likely than poor people to use the term white privilege, but it seems plausible to me (even though poorer people are more likely to actually believe in white privilege). While in other examples, Henderson really does seem to think it is the belief itself that is the status indicator, he is clearly aware that the style of communication plays an important part in the signal.
My hunch about the communication style being the status indicator rather than the belief itself isn’t backed up by much data, so maybe I’m wrong, but it felt dishonest not to mention that I think there may still be something valuable in Henderson’s argument - I just think the status signal is more related to the communication style than the belief itself. The implication of this is that views from any ideological family can also operate as luxury beliefs if they are couched in a language that makes it clear that you’re rich or well-educated. When libertarians talk about the NAP and praxeology, that could operate as a status signal. When rationalists talk about priors and Bayes’ Theorem, that could operate as a status signal. When nationalists talk about … well, you get the idea.
Let me know what you think in the comments or reach me on Twitter.
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