Culture, Society & Family Economics & Statistics

Charity, social justice and earth-friendly activism replace big houses, diamond rings and ostentatious living for status seekers

conspicuous conservation, new aristocrats, ryan murphy, smu, Cox

Keeping up with the Joneses has taken on a whole new meaning, according to new research by a professor in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Rich people traditionally flaunted their wealth with ostentatious living, designer clothing, big houses, fast cars and grand parties. But times have changed says Ryan Murphy, a research assistant professor in Cox’s O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom.

In a review of the research literature on modern conspicuous consumption, Murphy found that flashing a lavish lifestyle to signal one’s high-income status is losing favor.

In his briefing, “The New Aristocrats: A cultural and economic analysis of the new status signaling,” Murphy says “conspicuous consumption” has become outmoded.

Taking its place is a new-found interest in high-profile gestures by the social elite, who on the surface pursue moral aims but in reality signal status, he says.

“I still believe the rich are signaling status, but doing so in ways that are on the surface moral, especially ways that demonstrate a rejection of globalization and capitalism,” Murphy says. “But the social and intellectual elite who once bought fast cars and oversized houses to demonstrate where they are in the social pecking order are now buying Priuses.”

The briefing paper was published by Adam Smith Institute. The U.K.-based policy institute, dedicated to free market policies, noted that the paper describes “Why nobody’s keeping up with the Joneses anymore.”

“Signaling status” is a common exercise for the wealthy, but today’s “new aristocrats” focus their energies on signaling their virtue and avoiding simple crass consumerism, Murphy says.

This new class of high-dollar do-gooders differentiate themselves from classic aristocrats of the past who acquired useless skills, such as fencing, and from those described as having old-money, who made ostentatious displays of frivolous spending.

Instead the trend is toward “conspicuous conservation,” as wealthy people attempt to signal a lack of interest in status games.

This may mean they are also less amenable to policies such as luxury taxes, Murphy says, as the relationship between status goods and raw financial cost is much weaker than it once was.

Murphy, in SMU’s O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom, is an expert in institutional economics, public policy and macroeconomics.

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs