M. Baudrillart takes a position between the rigorous school, which advocates the retrenchment of wants, and the lax school, which regards luxury as something agreeable to the person and necessary to the state, and as indispensable to the progress of civilization; and he distinguishes between a luxury that is virtuous, permissible, and even laudable, and one which is improper and immoral. I can not admit the distinction; and I believe that the rigorous school is right. The condemnations which have been pronounced against luxury by the sages and philosophers of antiquity, the fathers of the Church, and the orators of the pulpit, are justified by the conclusions of modern thought. These men were ignorant of political economy, but they were inspired by right instincts and sentiments.
We have said that luxury consists in the consummation, to satisfy a factitious want, of something that has cost much labor. While labor is necessary to secure the satisfaction of bare needs, and while so many men are living in almost absolute destitution, can it be legitimate to employ a great part of the forces of capital and workmen which are at our disposition in producing superfluities which we would often be better without? A thing may cost enormous sums and still be useless and even injurious. Thousands of workmen are employed in the preparation of diamonds; but if the only use of the diamonds is to stimulate the vanity of those who possess them and to excite envy in those who have none, it would be better if they were sent to the bottom of the ocean. If the same workmen were employed in making articles of comfort for those who are in need of them, would it not be a subject for congratulation? I do not advocate sumptuary laws, but I look with pleasure on countries like Norway and the Alpine cantons of Switzerland, where, although no one buys diamonds, all have the means to procure necessaries. The real point to be considered is, that every object of luxury costs a great deal of labor; could not this labor be made useful in a more rational manner? The truth will appear more clearly by regarding an isolated individual. Would any man devote three years to making for himself a jewel that will be of no service to him? The absurdity of the actual transaction is hidden by the appearance of an exchange and the fact that the wearer of the jewel commands it of another. If we regard humanity in the light of a man obliged to satisfy his wants by his labor, it will appear to be folly to employ a part of the time in cutting diamonds, and in return to be obliged to go barefooted another part of the time. The inhabitants of a state have the disposal of a certain number of hours in a day; if they employ half of them in making futilities, it is evident that half the population will want for necessaries.
While M. Baudrillart condemns what he considers improper luxury with sufficient energy, he assumes that the procuring of necessaries does not afford a sufficient incentive to effort, and that a certain degree of luxury, of a moderate and moral kind, is indispensable as a