In England the several ranks of men slide into each other almost imperceptibly, and a spirit of equality runs through every part of their constitution. Hence arises a strong emulation in all the several stations and conditions to vie with each other; and the perpetual restless ambition in each of the inferior ranks to raise themselves to the level of those immediately above them. In such a state as this fashion must have uncontrolled sway. And a fashionable luxury must spread through it like a contagion. 1
Nathaniel Forster's description of English society in 1767 has encouraged some historians to argue that there was a consumer revolution in the eighteenth century, marked by 'an unprecedented propensity to consume: unprecedented in the depth to which it penetrated the lower reaches of society and unprecedented in its impact on the economy'. 2 But was Forster referring to economic reality, or was he complaining of the demise of social order and deference? The title of Forster's pamphlet should be borne in mind: An Enquiry into the Present High Price of Provisions, with its suggestion that consumerism was harmful because it drove up prices. Writers such as Forster did not necessarily welcome the spirit of equality and emulation, and its expression in 'fashionable luxury'. He was a critic of the governing oligarchy, which was, he believed, sunk in materialism and insensitive to the poor. Far from leading to prosperity and growth, many contemporaries feared that emulation and luxury were dangers to society, undermining deference and social stability.
Luxury was at the centre of a debate in the eighteenth century which raised fundamental issues about the nature of social order, the behaviour of the ruling class, and the basis of national prosperity. In 1700, the dominant assumption was still that prosperity was achieved through a strong balance of payments: luxuries were criticized as exotic imports, and home demand was considered a necessary evil competing with exports. Total demand was seen as inelastic, and it was not