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Is Wokeness the New Sumptuary Laws?


It’s not easy being woke. In fact, it can be downright cost prohibitive!

For those not hip to the woke, let me begin by noting that “wokeness” is similar to being fashionable, but with a strong air of social conscience and a desire to engage in the consciousness raising of others. 

Although “woke” originally indicated an awareness of racial injustice, the term now encompasses progressive policy positions on many social and economic issues, including environmentalism, gender identity, homelessness, crime, income inequality, and even pandemic behavior. The woke drive electric cars, carry reusable grocery bags, insist on having others recognize their personal pronouns, agitate for defunding the police, support higher minimum wages, and insist everyone wear a KN95 mask in public. 

The denizens of the woke house are quick to assert their insatiable desire to care for the voiceless, weak, and downtrodden. Driving a Tesla is not about their saving gas money, but about saving the planet. Calls for increases in the minimum wage are to help the poor. Rent control must be instituted so the homeless can find affordable housing. The woke wear masks for your protection, not theirs. Some will go so far as to glue themselves to the counters at coffeehouses so the prices of bovine and almond milk can be equalized for the sake of economic justice.

Wokesters quickly grab the moral high ground and ruthlessly denounce any deviation from the neo-orthodoxy du jour. Social media provides a conduit for quickly detecting thought and lifestyle infractions, shaming deviants into compliance or having them “canceled.” 

Such is the new woke world we live in. 

Nothing New Under the Sun.

But are cultural crusades aimed at changing social behavior really all that new? Does history provide other instances of puritanical campaigns that may reveal other underlying reason for our current culture of wokeness? And what might this lesson have to suggest about ways to counter the increasing attacks on personal liberty that emanate from the new orthodoxy?

Contemporary woke campaigns have been likened to McCarthyism in the 1950s and witch trials in colonial America. Considering that these historical instances involved persecutions for “thought crimes,” there is much to learn from such analogies. However, a more apt comparison may be made to the sumptuary laws and taxes that were commonplace throughout history. Such a comparison may better explain some hidden motivations for invoking wokeness.

Sumptuary laws were legal restrictions placed on the consumption of certain goods or behaviors that were deemed harmful to the moral fabric of society. Found commonly around the globe, they often targeted “luxury goods,” particularly clothing although such laws extended to food and even funeral services. Some of these restrictions were promoted by religious officials who found the show of extravagance distasteful. The Puritans restricted the use of lace, gold buttons, and “slashed sleeves” in the New England colonies. Similar restrictions were found in colonial Latin America, Tokugawa Japan, China, and the Islamic Middle East. (See also Chapter 6 of Virginia Postrel’s excellent book The Fabric of Civilization.) 

But as Bruce Yandle would remind us, for every Baptist there is frequently a bootlegger – i.e., someone who personally benefits from a restriction that was based ostensibly on moral grounds. And the bootleggers often cloaked their true intentions in a veil of righteousness. To wit, sumptuary laws were not universally applied to everyone in a society. Rather, they would often be directed at the lower economic classes so as to provide clear status boundaries. The aristocracy touted laws that ostensibly strengthened the moral fabric of society, but allowed themselves de jure or de facto exemptions. 

It is not surprising that clothing, one of the most visible indications of one’s position in society, would be a primary target of such regulation. The wealthy were often exempted from such prohibitions, allowed to pay a separate tax to wear certain clothes, or never had the laws enforced on them. Sumptuary taxes were popular, as they helped to fill the king’s coffer while simultaneously guaranteeing only the nobility could afford certain luxuries.

Interestingly, increases in sumptuary laws ran concurrently with periods of economic growth. During the late medieval period, an expanding merchant class found themselves with more disposable income, while at the same time declining production costs made previous luxuries such as fine cloth more accessible to the commoner. The new bourgeoisie could dress like nobility, and that could not stand! Aristocracies needed to preserve their identity and the elitist caste system.

Egalitarianism and the Persistent Desire for Status

The post-Enlightenment period witnessed a dramatic decrease in sumptuary prohibitions, given that the zeitgeist of the day was the democratic equality of all persons. As monarchies yielded authority to elected parliaments, dress and behavioral codes meant to distinguish the commoner from the nobility also faded. The nouveau riche bourgeoisie gained political power and demanded access to the garments of kings.

Despite the egalitarian ethos of modern times, the desire for high status remains a motivating factor for most humans. People continue to sort themselves into different status classes based upon a variety of visible signals. White collar professionals wear bespoke suits and enjoy golf club memberships. And even elite college professors, who bemoan the rise of inequality, tout their Ivy League and Oxbridge credentials while demanding high speaking fees and isolating themselves in wealthy faculty ghettos.

But the leveling effects of democratic capitalism marches forth at an increasingly rapid pace, undermining each of these status signals. Office casual has made it hard to differentiate a tech tycoon from a middle-class parent. “Fast fashion” permits any schmuck to dress like a million bucks. And the poor today enjoy products that were deemed elite luxuries just a decade or so earlier: smart phones, HDTVs, and even automobiles. The outward styling difference between a 2022 Honda Accord and a 2022 Tesla Model S is nowhere near what the difference between a 1970s Honda Accord and a 1970s Jaguar

And being a college faculty member isn’t what it used to be. With the expansion of college admissions over the past few decades, and the glut of PhDs (particularly in the humanities), many professors find themselves working in undesirable locales, low-prestige colleges, or adjuncting. When one’s anticipated intellectual status does not fit with one’s economic outcome, outrage ensues. It is enough to make one woke!

Woke Ideology as a Sumptuary Tax

If status is ever more difficult to signal via basic consumption goods, what is someone who seeks high societal status to do?! Use ideological commitments as a marker, that’s what! Welcome to the world of the woke. Adherence to newfangled ideologies (or repackaged old ones) becomes the luxury good in the status-leveling era of consumer egalitarianism.

While adopting and adhering to a new set of “progressive” behavioral norms and beliefs would appear relatively cost-free, it turns out that “living woke” may be quite expensive. 

First, rapid changes in ideas and norms often require significant investments in physical goods that are not easy to adopt for individuals of lesser means. This is especially true if certain consumer goods are branded with woke indicators. Yes, a Honda may look like a Tesla, but a Tesla saves the environment. 

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for those on the lower socio-economic rungs of society to swap out a car they recently purchased for something more eco-friendly. And if you don’t work at a corporate office that provides gratis recharging stations, or you live in an apartment or home with street parking only, charging an e-car becomes very difficult. While the elite cry out, “let them buy electric,” such options are not available to many common folk. Prius and Tesla remain the status symbol of the woke elite.

Solar panels, organic/non-GMO food, “sustainable” clothing, and “farm-to-table” restaurants are further examples that add an extra “woke premium” to the price of goods and services that were becoming more accessible to the great unwashed masses. The Covid lockdowns provided the opportunity for the elite to show how much they cared by mandating people stay home or wear masks indoors, all the while parading around with uncovered faces at fancy establishments and events while their masked retinue served their every whim. 

But beyond branding consumer goods and services with a woke label, there is another, perhaps more pernicious, trend among the woke elite. That trend is to redesign social norms and longstanding institutions. As Rob Henderson argued, the elite increasingly distance themselves from the masses through the use of luxury beliefs. Henderson points directly to adopting progressive (read: disparaging) beliefs about such outdated institutions as the nuclear family or religious institutions. As he notes, living as a single mom is easy when one can hire a nanny. And denigrating the role of churches in society is fine if one does not need these communities as vital support networks. Common folk cannot easily abandon these important institutions without damaging their economic well-being.

The same can be said for other woke ideological positions. While one can acknowledge that the use of excessive police force is problematic, extreme calls for defunding the police tends to hurt poor and minority communities that often suffer the most from violent crime. Defunding the police is an easy position to take if you can afford private security or escape to the exurbs. Nonetheless, such policy stances make one popular at cocktail parties even though one does not have to live with the negative consequences of those positions. 

The Covid pandemic opened up another avenue to craft separate status castes based upon adherence to health policy dictates. Locking down the population saved lives, particularly if you were a laptop-American and could easily pivot to working from home or if you had the free time and resources to more effectively educate your children. For others, including small merchants, blue-collar service workers, or parents who could not supervise their children’s at-home learning, lockdowns were a disaster. And we still have yet to experience the full effects. But to be seen without a mask even to this day, demotes you to that status of insensitive troglodyte and allows the upper class masker to retain their virtuous high ground.

And then there are the intellectual woke markers of concern over personal pronouns, renaming mothers to “birthing persons,” or the comedic value of comedians. The intellectual elite, despite espousing concern over the common folk, further aggravate all of this by inventing new terms for common social phenomena and having them echoed throughout the elite national media. The average person who has little time for such rhetorical gymnastics is demoted to a lower social caste and ridiculed if they cannot keep up with the latest woke phraseology. It should be no surprise that our new language policy emanates from the ranks of college faculty who have seen their status erode recently. 

What Is to Be Done?

The drive for superior status will forever be with us; it is baked into our human nature (including, I will admit, to my own). To anticipate it will be eradicated is a utopian goal. Nonetheless, recognizing how sumptuary laws revive themselves in various forms, if not actual legislative actions itself, is the best way to prevent progressive wokeness from running amok.

Fortunately, wokeness has not gone without pushback. Several comedians have boldly led the way, as comedy has always been on the cutting edge of revealing unpleasant truths. Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais have been accused of “punching down” on the vulnerable in society. However, if you look closely, their shows target the woke elite, something that the “common peasant” understands as indicated in their ratings and the unwillingness of Netflix’s CEO to cave in to hurt feelings. Humor has been, and will continue to be, one of the great levelers of social status. One could only hope for an injection of humor into universities which have increasingly taken themselves too seriously.

Beyond humor, though, the most important thing is to recognize the status-oriented motivations behind much of the woke rhetoric we hear today. It is much easier to dismiss Baptist sermons if one understands the bootlegger interests that run below the surface. Merely pointing out the hypocritical behaviors of the elite goes a long way to leveling those with high status.

A truly free and socially-egalitarian society will reject sumptuary taxes, no matter what form they take. Awake to the woke, and reject how it’s spoke.

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill is a professor of political economy at the University of Washington and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for the Study of Religion.

Earning his PhD in political science at UCLA in 1994, Prof. Gill specializes in the economic study of religion and civil society.

He received the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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