…is the title of a new multi-author volume edited by Joshua J. Yates and James Davison Hunter of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. I was one of the initial reviewers of the book, and found it to be a rich, vital and essential exploration of the idea, history, and practice of thrift in America. The book has a rather amazing line-up of authors, from historians to sociologists to economists to theologians (my suggestion that they include a political theorist was obviously ignored!), including Daniel Walker Howe, Deirdre McCloskey, Joyce Appleby, T.J. Jackson Lears, James Davison Hunter, and Robert Frank, among many others. While the book has the usual downside of a multi-author volume, it benefits from a comprehensive treatment that would not have been otherwise available – both historically, tracing through the idea of thrift throughout the history of America, as well as across a variety of fields of study.
What a number of the essays point out is that the abandonment of thrift required a revolution in thinking about our relationship to material goods. An industry (advertising, but also industrial production more widely) actively inculcated a felt sense of need for certain objects where earlier any such purchase would have been regarded as extravagence (just watch an episode of “The Waltons” for a remembered version of such thrift.)
A part of the story that should also be told was offered in a wonderful lecture at this weekend’s FPR conference on “Human Scale and the Human Good.” David Cloutier – a professor of Theology at Mt. St. Mary’s College – offered an extremely thought-provoking lecture on the transformation of the concept of “luxury” from its classical to its modern meaning. Cloutier not only pointed out that the word “luxury” went from having a negative to a positive set of connotations, but that it came largely to mean items that are expensive or rare. According to a more ancient understanding, however, “luxury” includes not only expensive items, but the effort to accumulate goods that are extraneous and unnecessary, as well as any use or employment of items in a way that is wasteful or irresponsible. Thus, he argued, even the purchase of Wal-Mart socks can be considered the purchase of a “luxury” item, particularly in an age in which we no longer repair (or “darn”) worn socks.
The decline of thrift – receiving an excellent treatment in this new book, and a bargain at only $35 for 620 pages – needs also be accompanied by a story of the transformation of the concept of luxury. When the recording of the FPR conference becomes available, I encourage all readers to give Professor Cloutier’s very fine presentation a hearing.