Luxury or Necessity?

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Mar 27, 1948 

Luxury or Necessity? 

One evening during the week a number of young men appeared in the dining room of a London hotel and exhibited posters while one of them demanded of the dinners:

Why was this hotel allowed to spend £22,500 when families are living in squalor in the East End?

He went on to tell them:

You wealthy live here in luxury and comfort, sipping your wine, and doing so at the expense of young children in the slums.

The answer to the question about the £22,500 is surely obvious. It is good that hotels, like factories are expected to play an important part in earning dollars and so in making sure that children in the East End, and elsewhere, do not starve.

Would houses go up faster in the East End if all the good hotels were closed and the tourist industry brought to a stop? I fancy fewer houses would be built than ever.

As for people living in luxury, I agree that there is little—indeed, nothing—to be said in defence of excessive luxury in an impoverished and undernourished world. At the same time, I think it is possible to dine and dance now and then at an ordinary good hotel without being guilty of criminal self-indulgence.

After all, if you are going to prohibit luxury till the slums are cleared away you will have to stop many things besides dining and dancing. The young men with the posters will find it to be their duty to visit the football grounds every Saturday during the season and tell the crowds how wicked it is in a world of need to spend money on the luxury of watching football matches.

The cold truth is that all of us—the poor, the rich and the large majority who are neither—live in lives of luxury to some extent. That tea and tobacco are luxuries is shown by the fact that the Greeks and the Romans of old time got on very well without them. A man would need to be a saint, however, to give up such luxuries and send the money he had saved to a fund for the starving children of Europe.

I should admire him immensely if he did; but I hold that, till we have ourselves given up luxuries we have not the right to denounce the luxuries of other people.

Luxuries, it must be admitted, are nowadays for most people among the necessaries of life. Many a child, I am sure, would rather go without his glass of milk than go without his cinema. Even during the air-raids in the recent war the cinemas were packed; so great is the craving of all classes for luxury. I doubt whether a party that closed the cinemas in order to put an end to expenditure on luxuries would have much chance of winning a general election.

Take the football pools, again. They are at present one of the chief luxuries of the English, Scottish and Welsh peoples. Week after week dreams of avarice are bought for sums ranging from a shilling to £5, and, till the following Saturday’s football results are read out on the wireless, the purchasers live lives on luxury as surely as did Charles James Fox and the great gamblers of the eighteenth century.

And so one might go on cataloguing luxury after luxury—dog racing, horse racing, cricket, jewellry, real or paste, cosmetics, much of the women’s hair-dressing, beer. And many people would add to the list books, theatres, art and all music except dance music, which seems to them much more superfluous than ice cream or cigarettes.

What then are we to do about it all? Can we be certain that the world would be a better place if we abolished the lot? If we can, then by all means let us close the hotels, the football grounds, the public-houses and all the other resorts of the pleasure lovers.

If we cannot, on the other hand, let us be chary of condemning the luxuries of other people while condoning our own.

After all, man is a paradoxical animal who has always found it necessary to be occasionally happy, even in a world thick sown with disaster.

He does so, we are told, in Russia as in England today.


More essays by ROBERT LYND:

Mechanical Lions

Eating Too Little


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