Surely one of the oldest human habits is to give different values for different types of foodstuff. Humans quite naturally do prefer some edible things over others. Even the earliest humans were quite certainly willing to trade less tasty foodstuffs for better tasting ones. This surely happened at a very early point of human development. One could even well think that the start of all commerce can be traced back into the exchanges of very good-tasting foodstuff.
This does not, however, explain why some foodstuffs are valued to be tens or hundreds of times more valuable than others. There are of course many factors; some foodstuffs just are very good tasting and people are willing to pay much more for them than for some others.
There are many cultural and economical (and artificial) reasons for the apparent inequality that is so extremely visible, for example, among wines. The aim in this piece is to explore some possible explanations for the mystery for why in earth people are quite commonly prepared to pay, for example, some wines hundreds of times more than for others-This is true, even if the commodity is basically always the same.
The most apparent reasons are naturally purely economical. The makers of and producers of certain foodstuffs just do a lot of hard work to make people believe that their products are in some way superior to others, and that they are worth a lot more than others. This strategy has been perfected in France.
The most fantastic thing is that sone producers really have succeeded in making many otherwise quite intelligent people really believe that, for example, sparkling wine produced in certain geographical area is automatically better than other sparkling wines.
Many people do quite honestly believe that a sparkling wine produced on a certain geographical location is automatically worth much more money and is better-tasting than sparkling wines that are produced just a hundred meters beyond the border of a given geographical area.
Of course, the extremely high prices that are paid for ‘real Champagne’ has allowed these producers to invest also to quality of the product. However, sparkling wine that is produced in Suzanne just might be strikingly similar to the wine produced in Epenay a few kilometers away, even if the former is just sparkling wine and the latter can be marketed as real champagne.
Most people will never even doubt these basically quite irrational beliefs. Most often, they just are brought up from their earliest childhood to believe that certain expensive foodstuffs or drinks just are better tasting than the cheaper ones.
The basic mental mechanism that is used here is, of course, the same that is used by the religions for a good effect. When even fantastic claims are just repeated often enough and learned at an early stage of life, their validity is very often never even questioned. Even questioning their validity is seen as offensive and rude and these ideas are quite universally just ignored.
When ideas are embedded deeply enough in an early stage of life in one’s mind it is all too often extremely difficult to understand that we have in the end just learned these things from other people. They are not facts, but just possible ways for looking at certain things.
A well established scientific fact is that the human brain just works so that the things we know to be more expensive just do also taste better. Our brains create motivation for the extra expense as we go along. It has been shown in practical studies that when people believe that they are drinking an expensive wine it will taste better than a wine they are brought to believe to be a cheap one. This happens, even if in real terms the wines would have been switched.
Professionals in the wine industry are a bit different matter. They are prone to recognize the flavors that are commonly used to characterize more expensive wines. This is true, even if it is a completely subjective matter if these characteristics are personally seen as good or bad. However, the professionals very soon learn to like the things they need to like to be accepted as professionals.
The strategy of creating very expensive brands would have never played out so well if there would not have been another simultaneous development. There was the accumulation of wealth to few hands to such degree that people with this wealth just could not spend it on normal things that everybody needs. The more of the same stops being fun very fast.
There is simply no point in creating extreme inequality if there is nothing to be gained from that situation. When real things are not enough to serve as goals after all basic needs are fulfilled one just needs to create illusory ones. The accumulated wealth needed to be floundered around. There soon was a direct need to invent things that would be classed as exponentially more tasty and seductive than the normal foodstuffs that the poorer people did eat and drink.
The makers of foodstuffs soon understood the existence of this market. The process of in-equalization among foodstuffs was soon started in earnest. The producers started to fulfill this rising need. The makers started to invent properties and tastes that would justify the prizing of their products at fantastic prizes.
This process started with the rise of inequality at the dawn of agricultural societies. Very soon there were elites who did live off the physical work of others. They also had the time and willingness to spend on luxuries. It is quite probable that beer from Uruk was seen as more worthy and was priced much higher than beer from Ashur in the Assyrian empire.
In the end, the real reason for writing this piece is the idea that the inequality among foodstuffs and also other things was necessary in helping to create the continued willingness to work harder than really is necessary to fulfill the basic human needs. This willingness is needed to keep modern capitalism going.
With the birth of more and more expensive things one could always have new goals to keep going. There would always be things that you could not afford, but which seemed to offer something that the cheaper thing did not give.
Of course, this willingness to work harder than is really necessary just to reach imaginary goals is one of the foundation blocks of modern capitalist society. Without these systems we would not have the wealth we now have.
In any case, the creation of a new class of expensive foods and other luxuries was a necessary part of the creation of the modern rat-race. The goals are never really reached, as still more expensive and promising things are always on offer. There is always the direct possibility that a person can realize that what he or she already has been enough for his or her needs. However, this would not serve the interests of our current economic system. It is based on the idea of continuous growth. This kind of continuous and never-stopping growth can be fueled only by continuous swelling of the perceived needs that humans have.
This tendency was already in existence in the time of Greek philosopher Epicurus 2300 years ago, when he wrote:
“Natural wealth is both limited and easily obtained, but vanity is insatiable.”
When the needs that people try to fulfill are themselves illusory things, there is no limit how high their goals can be set. One can always build bigger illusions, even if the real world always has its limits. When belly is full, one is not motivated by hunger or thirst anymore, but there is always a more expensive wine, a rared blend of whiskey or tastier caviar somewhere.
Most of all a things like paintings can be priced at a continually higher price, as there just is no limit on how high such an illusory price can be set. The net result is that there will always be things that are beyond your current means, which of course means that the rat-race will never end. This of course keeps the growth-based economy growing.
The expensive foods and drinks serve as extremely important symbols of status. The requirement for knowledge on the qualities and history of the expensive foodstuffs and expensive art have also always served as requirements for membership in the clubs of successful and powerful. Even more importantly this requirement has served as a method form of justification for the growing inequality.
When the knowledge of fine foods and wines is seen as real marks of civilization, those who for financial reasons are unable to acquaint themselves with those things are very easy to dismiss as savages and ruffians. They do not deserve even the sympathy of the ‘civilized’ people who do know their wines.
Many people soon saw themselves as standing as guardians of our civilization when they were tasting the expensive and exquisite wines. In the end, nothing feels better than to enjoy yourself. This is even more so if one does also simultaneously feel that one is fulfilling an important societal and cultural function. This can be the case, even when you are really just enjoying and pampering yourself.
Of course wine-tasting as such is a quite harmless hobby, quite like collecting stamps or building model airplanes. However, collecting or not collecting stamps is not used as a tool for raising or diminishing the value of human beings. The wine-snobbery just is all too often a tool in building up the perceived value of one group of humans over others
Of course, the ideas that are presented in the piece owe much to great sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who did ground-breaking studies in the area of luxury-consumption nearly hundred years ago. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorstein_Veblen )
Most of the ideas presented here are quite in line with the ideas of Epicurus, who was quite satisfied with simplest of wines and simplest of cheeses himself.
Remember the words of Epicurus;
"He who understands the limits of life knows that it is easy to obtain that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete and perfect. Thus he has no longer any need of things which involve struggle."
Of course, many people really deep down believe that the differences in taste are a real and valid reason for paying a hundred or thousand times more for some items than other quite similar items. Marketing and branding play a major role in the creation of the luxury brands. However, the central things in this process are the hidden social, sociological, psychological and political motivations.
These motivations together help to build up a system where matters of pure personal taste are magically transformed into metaphysical questions of accepting or rejecting the current system of values. One who questions the validity of the system that is based on consumption of luxury goods puts the whole system under a suspicion. This person can even plant seeds of doubt in the minds of those who have spend their whole lives to build up a belief in this belief-system. In the end this is just a belief. It is a belief in the hidden value of certain luxury items, which is revealed only to those initiated in the secrets of the system.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 27th of December, 2012)