Watching Mr. Selfridge with my wife last night I was reminded of an under-appreciated feature of free-markets. The wealthy subsidize beauty for the less well-off by patronizing luxury retailers.
Selfridge’s, a pioneer in the development of department stores, is a purveyor of fine goods. The upper crust are its clientele. Yet one of the things that made the store famous is available to the general public for free: it’s beautiful and dramatic window displays. The sale of expensive goods to wealthier individuals is the goal, but thanks to the dollars from those customers and the desire to get more of their business, the store goes to great lengths to display their wares in an appealing and provocative way. The result is a positive externality for every passerby on the streets of London.
Other luxury items have the same effect. If you can overcome the urge to envy, you notice that high-end cars and buildings make the world around us more beautiful and enchanting. Market detractors often fret about negative externalities in a free world, but how often do they account for the immense richness experienced by all, thanks to the wealth of some?
Our sense of life is made up of many things, including the aesthetic environment in which we dwell. The seemingly extravagant expenditures of the wealthy can create surroundings overflowing with creativity and elegant design. If you’ve never enjoyed the art of a neighborhood full of houses you couldn’t afford and landscaping you’d never dream of, I recommend taking a drive through one. Put prejudice aside and let the sensory magnificence seep in. Humans are amazing creatures who can shape our environs in amazing ways – I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those with nice stuff be the only ones to take pleasure in it!