The concept of luxury in British political economy: Adam Smith to Alfred Marshall

M. J D Roberts*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


In the discourse of 18th-century British intellectuals the term 'luxury' held a well-recognized and much disputed place. Dispute arose chiefly around the problem of disentangling the economic, moral-theological and political strands of the term. The object of the present paper is to trace forward the history of debate over the concept along one developing line of specialization - that of 19th-century political economy. It will be seen how the term luxury (and related terms: necessity, decency, productive, unproductive, etc.) adjusted meaning(s) as the economic, social and intellectual contexts in which it was embedded themselves mutated. In particular, it is argued, the changing significance attached to the term illustrates the extent to which a key 19th-century intellectual elite managed to accommodate the implications of a transition from a society based on assumptions of scarcity and hierarchy to one that was beginning to contemplate the possibility of mass market abundance. While the profession's leaders did develop a sharpened interest in aspiration to luxury consumption as a legitimate motor of economic growth, all registered their disapproval of certain forms of the aspiration, revealing in the process a variety of class, gender and 'race' preoccupations - including (from J. S. Mill onwards) a particular distaste for positional or status-related consumption.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-47
Number of pages25
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1998


  • Economy
  • Luxury
  • Malthus
  • Marshall
  • Political
  • Ricardo smith


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