Mises Daily Articles
Luxuries into Necessities
[Economic Freedom and Interventionism (1980)]
About 60 years ago Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) the great French sociologist, dealt with the problem of the popularization of luxuries. An industrial innovation, he pointed out, enters the market as the extravagance of an elite before it finally turns, step by step, into a need of each and all and is considered indispensable. What was once a luxury becomes in the course of time a necessity.
The history of technology and marketing provides ample exemplification to confirm Tarde's thesis. There was in the past a considerable time lag between the emergence of something unheard of before and its becoming an article of everybody's use. It sometimes took many centuries until an innovation was generally accepted at least within the orbit of Western civilization. Think of the slow popularization of the use of forks, of soap, of handkerchiefs, and of a great variety of other things.
From its beginnings capitalism displayed the tendency to shorten this time lag and finally to eliminate it almost entirely. This is not a merely accidental feature of capitalistic production; it is inherent in its very nature. Capitalism is essentially mass production for the satisfaction of the wants of the masses. Its characteristic mark is big-scale production by big business. For big business there cannot be any question of producing limited quantities for the sole satisfaction of a small elite. The bigger big business becomes, the more and the quicker it makes accessible to the whole people the new achievements of technology.
Centuries passed before the fork turned from an implement of effeminate weaklings into a utensil of all people. The evolution of the motor car from a plaything of wealthy idlers into a universally used means of transportation required more than 20 years. But nylon stockings became, in this country, an article of every woman's wear within hardly more than two or three years. There was practically no period in which the enjoyment of such innovations as television or the products of the frozen-food industry was restricted to a small minority.
The disciples of Marx are anxious to describe in their textbooks the "unspeakable horrors of capitalism" which, as their master had prognosticated, results "with the inexorability of a law of nature" in the progressing impoverishment of the "masses." Their prejudices prevent them from noticing the fact that capitalism tends, by the instrumentality of big-scale production, to wipe out the striking contrast between the mode of life of a fortunate elite and that of the rest of a nation.
The gulf that separated the man who traveled in a coach and six and the man who stayed at home because he lacked the fare has been reduced to the difference between Pullman, or first class, and coach travel.