Of Peacocks and Progressives

“In the past, upper-class Americans used to display their social status with luxury goods. Today, they do it with luxury beliefs.”

—Rob Henderson

A number of thinkers in recent years have applied signaling theory to explain the often bizarre beliefs of educated elites in the West. In this short piece, I’d like to explore this application, focusing especially on what Rob Henderson has called “luxury beliefs.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that analyzing some belief or another as a costly signal does not mean that the believer is mistaken, lying, or otherwise confused about the contents of his or her consciousness. That’s not how the mind works. Most signalers are probably true believers at the proximate level. They really do believe exactly what they espouse. A signaling explanation does not suggest that people are hypocrites; rather, it attempts to account for the popularity of certain beliefs from a more impersonal perspective.

A case can be made that humans are the signaling species. Signaling is widespread in nature, but perhaps no creature so pervasively creates and displays signals as humans. To understand how this relates to luxury beliefs, we have to understand costly signaling theory. According to costly signaling theory, signals remain reliable because they force costs upon signalers that dishonest signalers can’t bear.

A pretty straightforward example is an expensive sports car. It is an honest signal of wealth. Why? Because it imposes almost prohibitive costs (a high price tag, insurance, and incredibly expensive repairs); people who are not wealthy simply can’t allocate enough of their income to afford a Porsche, because they have to use it to purchase necessities such as food and shelter.

Some have argued that luxury goods such as sports cars and Rolexes are costly signals that are aimed at the other sex. They are a way to say, “Hey, if I can afford this, then guess how much is in my bank account ladies.” Others have argued that they are costly signals aimed at same-sex rivals or potential coalitional partners. Probably, they are combination of both. But that doesn’t matter here. What does matter is the basic logic of signaling that they illustrate.

The signal (Rolex) is so expensive that (almost) only wealthy people can afford it. Therefore, if you encounter somebody who is wearing a Rolex, you can be reasonably confident that he or she is actually rich. The same holds for many other consumer items, of course, such as huge houses and fancy suits. Scholars call the purchase and display of such items conspicuous consumption. The best conspicuous consumption is money spent on useless goods such as ice sculptures of angels that spit costly wine from their mouths.

Now to beliefs. As scholars have pointed out, beliefs can function like luxury items; they can be, that is, costly signals. But costly signals of what? How exactly does a belief impose a cost?

There are several ways that a belief or its expression might impose costs. First, and most straightforwardly, the expression of a belief might require learning an onerous and intimidating argot. Saying, “The West is largely a cisheteropatriarchy dominated by certain modes of discourse which create and recreate the subjective while positing an objective position outside of the recursive” requires at least some learning and familiarity with postmodern discourse. So, at minimum, this kind of belief requires intelligence and education; and is therefore an effective signal of those traits. It’s almost impossible to imagine a person who is not at least of above average intelligent stringing such sentences together consistently.

Tastes that might be called “pretentious” probably follow a similar logic. A fondness for independent foreign films or extremely rare and bizarre cheeses, for example, probably require leisure time to develop. This might explain why elites often ridicule “pedestrian” tastes and simplistic action films: It’s a way to display their superior cultural learning and to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi.

Other luxury beliefs about drugs or polyamory, for example, might display one’s intelligence and self-control by signaling one’s ability to engage in potentially addictive or deleterious behaviors while remaining socially functional. Those with low self-control might have a more difficult time controlling their drug use than others and might therefore descend into dysfunctional addiction more quickly. Similarly, those with low self-control may find polyamory appealing but might quickly destroy intimate relationships with fits importunate of jealousy.

Another cost luxury beliefs might impose is what can be called the strutting peacock effect. A strutting peacock would look absolutely ridiculous if it weren’t adorned with astonishingly beautiful plumage. Similarly, some beliefs would sound incredibly stupid and appear so counterintuitive that only a smart, clever person could express them without also appearing very silly. Take, for example, the belief that matter doesn’t exist or the belief that we shouldn’t have children because life is more painful than pleasurable. Likely, only a reasonably smart person would ever come up with such beliefs. More importantly, only somebody who is intelligent and learned could defend them successfully.

Luxury beliefs might also impose costs by promoting policies that hurt the less educated more than the highly educated. Open borders, for example, might be a boon to the highly educated in the United States. But it might hurt lower skilled workers. And it might also create a less familiar, comfortable culture. Those high in openness may thrive in that more diverse and exotic culture; but those lower in openness and tied to a community may flounder in it.

Similarly, anti-patriotism, which is popular among at least a large subset of the elites, might be a luxury belief because they don’t rely on the nation for meaning. They can travel to France, Italy, Japan and thrive. Meanwhile, the less educated are more dependent upon the nation for meaning and for flourishing. They can’t just travel to Italy and create a meaningful life.

The rapidly increasing popularity of the concept of “white privilege” might follow a similar logic. The people who will pay the price for the notion that all whites have a kind of privilege that makes them suspect are from the middle and lower classes, not in the upper classes. So, elite whites and minority groups benefit the most from this idea, whereas poorer whites are most hurt.

Throughout history, people have used signals to communicate relatively hidden or hard-to-detect traits to others. Elites especially have used signals to communicate their prestige, intelligence, and leisure. It’s likely that as material wealth continues to increase, signaling will shift from luxury items to luxury beliefs. This might explain the rise of what analysts have called “opinion morality,” or an increased concern about people’s opinions on hot button moral issues such as sexual identity and a concomitant decrease in concern about actual behavior. The opinion is the signal.

Beliefs aren’t bad just because they are costly signals. Perhaps many of our more appealing beliefs throughout history began as luxury beliefs. But there is certainly a danger that elite luxury beliefs will become more and more wild and exotic, more foreign to the average person, and will continue to erode institutions that provide meaning and guidance to so many people (atheism is like a good example of a luxury belief). And this is what is especially vexing about what we might call luxury progressivism: It cloaks itself in the robe of social care and concern, but it often manifests as a reckless and selfish display of prestige.

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.