Wednesday, January 30, 2002

We need our luxuries, if we can call them that

Our notion of 'basics' and luxuries' is not cast in stone. The big car that is a luxury today will seem to be necessary tomorrow.
Gautam Chikermane
IF BEYOND the basics, everything is a luxury, the question is: what are the basics? Quite like the definition of ‘terrorist’ (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter), the definition of ‘basic needs’ varies–one man’s necessities are another man’s indulgence. The Random House dictionary defines ‘necessity’ as "something necessary or indispensable" and ‘luxury’ as "a material object, service, etc., conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity". Unfortunately, in their application, these definitions take us nowhere–the possibilities of stretching them to suit our beliefs are so high that they might as well not exist.
What is necessary? At one level, just food, clothes, shelter, education and healthcare. But my definition is just as subjective as any other, even though for millions around us even two meals a day is a daily battle and shelter certainly a luxury. The point of this exercise is not to arrive at absolute definitions, but to underline the relativity of the various shades of meaning a word acquires in its context–the context, in this case, being our station in life, which must condition our perception of ‘basic needs’ and ‘luxuries’. When I was in college, I would, like all my friends, travel in a DTC bus. As we stood waiting at the bus stand, I would hope first, to be able to get on the crowded bus; then, get a corner to lean my backside on; then, to find someone who would be considerate enough to share his seat with me; then, get a seat to myself; then, have a pretty girl sitting next to me; and so on. How quickly luxuries become necessities! Everything we already have is a necessity (but of course), and the next thing we aspire to will become a necessity soon as we have it.
What is a luxury? Christopher J. Berry, professor of political theory at University of Glasgow, explores the meaning of luxury in his 1994 book, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Analysis. He defines luxuries as objects of desire that provide positive pleasure (as against necessities, which are utilitarian objects that relieve an unpleasant state of discomfort). So, while we may get along fine without our car, our computer, our cellphone and so on, before we knew it, each of these things became a necessity in our lives. We can continue to survive on food, clothes and shelter, but that car is no longer a luxury. At what point did that happen?
Column in Outlook Money