Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Thought on Sumptuary Laws: Adam Smith to Plastic Bags

"Sumptuary laws" typically refers to laws in the Middle Ages that were passed in part to limit conspicuous consumption, and in part to enforce lines of social distinction, so that, say, only the nobility could wear certain fabrics or colors. Melissa Snell offers a quick overview of "Medieval Sumptuary Laws" (, March 29, 2019).

The topic was on my mind because of a recent essay by John Tierney in City Journal, who argues that current bans against plastic bags or plastic straws represent a modern version of the sumptuary laws (Winter 2020, "The Perverse Panic over Plastic: The campaign against disposable bags and other products is harming the planet and the public"). Tierney writes:
Today’s plastic bans represent a revival of sumptuary laws (from sumptus, Latin for “expense”), which fell out of favor during the Enlightenment after a long and inglorious history dating to ancient Greece, Rome, and China. These restrictions on what people could buy, sell, use, and wear proliferated around the world, particularly after international commerce increased in the late Middle Ages.

Worried by the flood of new consumer goods and by the rising affluence of merchants and artisans, rulers across Europe enacted thousands of sumptuary laws from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. These included exquisitely detailed rules governing dresses, breeches, hose, shoes, jewelry, purses, bags, walking sticks, household furnishings, food, and much more—sometimes covering the whole population, often specific social classes. Gold buttons were verboten in Scotland, and silk was forbidden in Portuguese curtains and tablecloths. In Padua, no man could wear velvet hose, and no one but a cavalier could adorn his horse with pearls. It was illegal at dinner parties in Milan to serve more than two meat courses or offer any kind of sweet confection. No Englishwoman under the rank of countess could wear satin striped with silver or gold, and a German burgher’s wife could wear only one golden ring (and then only if it didn’t have a precious stone).

Religious authorities considered these laws essential to curb “the sin of luxury and of excessive pleasure,” in the words of Fray Hernando de Talavera, the personal confessor to Spain’s Queen Isabella. “Now there is hardly even a poor farmer or craftsman who does not dress in fine wool and even silk,” he wrote, echoing the common complaint that imported luxuries were upsetting the social order and causing everyone to spend beyond their means. In justifying her sumptuary edicts, England’s Queen Elizabeth I lamented that the consumption of imported goods had led to “the impoverishing of the Realme, by dayly bringing into the same of superfluitie of forreine and unnecessarie commodities.”

But like the Americans who go on using plastic bags, the queen’s subjects refused to give up their “unnecessarie commodities.” The sumptuary laws failed to make much impact in England or anywhere else, despite the rulers’ best efforts. Their agents prowled the streets and inspected homes, confiscating taboo luxuries and punishing violators—usually with fines, sometimes with floggings or imprisonment. But the conspicuous consumption continued. If silk was banned, people would find another expensive fabric to flaunt. Rulers had to keep amending their edicts, but they remained one step behind, and often the laws were flouted so widely that the authorities gave up efforts to enforce them.

For historians, the great puzzle of sumptuary laws is why rulers went on issuing them for so many centuries despite their ineffectiveness. ... The laws didn’t curb the public’s sinful appetite for luxury or contribute to national prosperity, but they comforted the social elite, protected special interests, enriched the coffers of church and state, and generally expanded the prestige and power of the ruling class. For nobles whose wealth was eclipsed by nouveau-riche merchants, the laws reinforced their social status. The restrictions on imported luxuries shielded local industries from competition. The fines collected for violations provided revenue for the government, which could be shared with religious leaders who supported the laws. Even when a law wasn’t widely enforced, it could be used selectively to punish a political enemy or a commoner who got too uppity.

The laws persisted until the waning of royal sovereignty and church authority, starting in the eighteenth century. As intellectuals promoted new rights for commoners and extolled the economic benefits of free trade, sumptuary laws came to be seen as an embarrassing anachronism. Yet the urge to rule inferiors never goes away.
Those interested in the question on whether bans on plastic bags and plastic straws make economic and environmental sense can start with Tierney's article. A couple of my own posts on plastics include:
Here, I want to focus on a different topic: Does it make sense to think of bans on plastic bags in the same category as rules related to wearing gold buttons or silk, or serving two meat courses? As for all topics, a first place to turn is Adam Smith, who mentions sumptuary laws several times in the Wealth of Nations. (As usual, I quote here from the online version freely available at the Library of Economics and Liberty website.)

One mention of sumptuary laws comes up during Smith's discussion "Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labour" in Book II, Chapter III. Smith argues tartly that productivity has been rising in England, and mostly because of the frugality and efforts of individuals, not kings and ministers. Thus, Smith writes (boldface added):
The annual produce of its land and labour is, undoubtedly, much greater at present than it was either at the Restoration or at the Revolution. The capital, therefore, annually employed in cultivating this land, and in maintaining this labour, must likewise be much greater. In the midst of all the exactions of government, this capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition. It is this effort, protected by law and allowed by liberty to exert itself in the manner that is most advantageous, which has maintained the progress of England towards opulence and improvement in almost all former times, and which, it is to be hoped, will do so in all future times. England, however, as it has never been blessed with a very parsimonious government, so parsimony has at no time been the characteristical virtue of its inhabitants. It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the Ĺ“conomy of private people, and to restrain their expence, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.
The arguments over plastic bags do not seem to fit well into this discussion of extravagance and opulence. However, the topic of sumptuary laws also comes up in Smith's discussion of "taxes on consumable commodities" in Book V, Ch. II. Smith is arguing that that commodities can be classified into "necessities" and "luxuries," and further argues that taxes on necessities will lead to a rise in the wages of labor--in modern terms, we would say that taxes on necessities are passed on to employers. However, Smith argues that taxes on luxuries like tobacco and alcohol can be viewed as sumptuary laws that may have a beneficial effect on the poor. Smith writes: 
It is otherwise with taxes upon what I call luxuries, even upon those of the poor. The rise in the price of the taxed commodities will not necessarily occasion any rise in the wages of labour. A tax upon tobacco, for example, though a luxury of the poor as well as of the rich, will not raise wages. ...  The different taxes which in Great Britain have in the course of the present century been imposed upon spirituous liquors are not supposed to have had any effect upon the wages of labour. ...
The high price of such commodities does not necessarily diminish the ability of the inferior ranks of people to bring up families. Upon the sober and industrious poor, taxes upon such commodities act as sumptuary laws, and dispose them either to moderate, or to refrain altogether from the use of superfluities which they can no longer easily afford. Their ability to bring up families, in consequence of this forced frugality, instead of being diminished, is frequently, perhaps, increased by the tax. It is the sober and industrious poor who generally bring up the most numerous families, and who principally supply the demand for useful labour. 
This meaning of sumptuary laws is a little closer to the plastic bag application. In modern language, overuse of tobacco and alcohol have negative social consequences, and thus discouraging their use is appropriate. The argument made for bans on plastic bags is that they have negative social consequences, too.  But ultimately, it's hard for me to view rules about plastic bags and straws (whether one favors or opposes such proposals) as attempts to control what Smith would call the "luxuries" of the poor, or as an attempt to reinforce class distinctions.

My own sense is that environmental concerns about plastic in the environment have a sound basis, but that plastic grocery bags and plastic straws are a visible but insignificant part of that overall problem. Moreover, it has become apparent that a substantial share of efforts that claimed to recycle plastics in the past actually involved exporting them to China and other Asian destinations; in retrospect, putting that waste plastic into landfills might well have been a preferable environmental choice.