Breaking Through Luxury Beliefs and Preference Cascades

You may wonder why people have bought into things that are clearly illogical, physically impossible, and demonstrably racist. I have a couple of theories about that.

At least part of it is virtue signaling, of course. I have written a couple of times about Thorstein Veblen, the economist and sociologist, who made observations about social class in the late nineteenth century and his idea that there is a “leisure class” that holds “luxury beliefs”. In “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, he stated that the “leisure class” – affluent people – display their membership in the upper class with their material accouterments. For example, expensive designer clothing or driving an Aston Martin convey such “membership”.

But I think that Veblen’s theory applies across all political, economic, and social classes – as always, there is a segment of each social and economic class (upper, middle, lower), who send the same signals to their cliques that they are moving up. That is why we saw looting of certain stores during the recent “mostly peaceful protests” and the theft of flat screen TV’s and other luxury goods first before basic sustenance needs were stolen. The “five finger discounts” have more to do with status among certain classes than need.

I think the white, progressive, upper-class support of woke/BLM/ANTIFA protests and the support of concepts like Critical Race Theory are more about status than “equality”. If you listen carefully to what the perpetually aggrieved say, it is less about true justice and more about social status. Since they believe the upper classes get more justice (or passes) than lower classes, their solution is to be awarded higher status rather than equal justice. We should remember that equally applied laws do not mean equal outcomes – but since progressives are outcome based, equality of outcome is what drives them in social, economic, and legal terms. The very basis for the idea of “social justice” is unequal treatment under the law in the quest for so called “equity” (the equality of outcomes).

But some of it has to do with the fear of missing out (aka FOMO) and the preference cascade that fear creates. “Preference cascade” is a phrase coined by Instapundit’s proprietor, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, and there are two sides to the preference cascade coin –  the positive side of the coin is about creating the perception that there are more people who believe in something than there really are, creating a powerful illusion of peer pressure, enough that people join up for fear of missing out and being ostracized. It happens all the time when “cult” phenomena go mainstream. Ranging from the relatively harmless (the pet rock craze, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” to the dangerous (Tide Pods, the “condom challenge” – where practitioners snorted a condom up one nostril and pulled it out the other) to the destructive (CRT and anything on MSNBC or CNN), these cascades can occur almost overnight.

There is a yin/yang sort of relationship in the FOMO preference cascades. To protect the larger “in crowd”, a negative version of the cascade is perpetrated against those who do not buy in. To protect themselves from criticism, the cool kids work hard to convince the dissidents they are alone together. Large populations of people can be dominated by small groups only if the dissenters can be convinced there are very few of them and that they stand alone. To do this, the majority of citizens must be portrayed as loyal to the regime (whether they are or not), and everyone around the dissident is a potential informer.  A huge dissident population can therefore be suppressed, by making them believe they’re all lonely voices in the wilderness.

Preference cascades contributed to both the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. I think the election of Donald Trump was a “preference cascade” that began as many people looked at their neighbor and saw that none of them wanted anything to do with continuing the Obama years by electing Hillary. The day finally came that enough people in key states began to realize they were not alone, and most people didn’t support the Obama regime. That process by which the dissent became to be seen as commonplace, and eventually overwhelming, was the preference cascade that resulted in the Trump Presidency.

Biden’s election was driven by the negative side of the preference cascade and helped along with Facebook and Twitter banning and censorship as well as nightly harangues from the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) and cable outlets MSNBC and CNN that constantly hid the truth of Trump’s accomplishments, the success of his administration and amplified the negatives as well as falsely calling him a fascist and a racist while supporting groups that were both.

We can break this entire irrational ethos of luxury beliefs and preference cascades that has taken hold of America.

The virtue signaling of “luxury beliefs” can be broken. I think the effect of restaurants and other shops trading in conspicuous consumption being closed during the pandemic, plus people relearning that they can cook their own food and that they can make better, cheaper coffee at home that they can buy at Starbucks, has caused many to rethink the value of such signaling and whether it is worth the cost. Crises – whether real or manufactured – tend to sharpen the focus of the people who experience and survive them. The various disruptions in the established patterns of living caused by lockdowns, shortages, deprivation, and prohibitions cause people to question “luxury” aspects of their lives that had become routine and once people discover what they can do without, they begin to question why it was necessary in the first place.

As to defeating preference cascades, it is simple. A while ago, I wrote about the Abilene Paradox – how preference cascades can result in everybody agreeing but nobody getting anything they want.

This paradox was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management” and is a form of “group think” that results in the worst possible option being chosen and no member of the group getting anything that they want. The key to keeping this shell game going, is to keep individuals in the group isolated enough from each other that they never recognize that they all feel the same way, that they never realize just how much they have in common and that they are more alike than different.

When any group realizes they share the same issues and goals, it starts sort of a reverse preference cascade – a choice matrix by which people start to bond together over common purposes and goals against the forces that are keeping them from achieving these goals.

Free speech is the answer. Loud, proud, and frequent. Make Facebook and Twitter shut us down, we just move to MeWe, Substack, GETTR, or some other platform – actually what is better is that we are on all of them simultaneously.

As Mr. Universe told Mal Reynolds, Captain of the Serenity (a Firefly class spaceship), “They can’t stop the signal, Mal. They can never stop the signal.”

One thought on “Breaking Through Luxury Beliefs and Preference Cascades

  1. Pingback: Sunday Afternoon/Evening Links – The Daley Gator

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