A definition of luxury becomes even more fraught with unconscious moral assumptions when the term is applied to activities that at one time were considered duties. You hear people talk, for instance, as though the prohibition against theft were a luxury that only the rich can afford, because they are not truly hungry. A more thoughtful way to apprpoach that issue would be to say that a rich man's honesty has not been tested by hunger, with a cautionary note that a rich man should be slow to assume that he would do a better job than his neighbor of avoiding theft if he ever were equally hungry. By defining a virtue as a luxury, however, someone who wants to remove the stigma from violation of a duty can score an indirect moral point in his own favor, or at least disarm his critics in advance -- as if everyone in less desperate straits than oneself were at least unpleasantly complacent, if not outright greedy.
I am referring, obviously, to the President's recent statement that he and his wife did not have the "luxury" of letting her stay home with the kids. This statement is remarkably full of loaded assumptions. To begin with, it's hard not to laugh at the idea that a family with hundreds of thousands of dollars of income "can't afford" to forgo a second paycheck. But even if you buy that notion, calling a stay-at-home mom a "luxury" is essentially to make a judgment that the big house and the cable TV are basic necessities, while personally raising their children constitutes the frill.
The President presumably considers himself something of a feminist, without ever thinking about it very hard. Being a man of his culture, however, he naturally assumes that the man works and then, if there's still not enough money, the woman works too, which just shows you that he's not nutty enough to expect even a very liberal electorate to swallow too many transformative social experiments all at once. But a real feminist wouldn't justify her decision to earn a living by saying her husband couldn't afford to support her. She might suggest that, if it were clear that at least one parent ought to stay home with young children, then some careful thought should be given to which parent it should be. She might also take the position that it's no one's business but hers and her husband's how they arrange to share the adult duties in their household.
In the meantime, luxury strikes me as a word connoting envy. Ann Romney, understandably, is the target of a lot of envy, who is being asked to justify her good fortune and is being rather casually reviled for it.
Update: Over at her place, Cassandra has summed up nicely part of what I was trying to say. Ann Romney takes heat for staying at home. Sarah Palin takes heat for failing to do so.
The one constant in all of this agonizing over a woman's proper role has been that if the woman happens to be a liberal, there is no wrong answer. But if she's conservative, there is no right answer. . . . [S]ome folks on the right are just as deeply confusicated about all this pesky talk of women having dangerous choices as their progressive brethren in Christ.
There's always someone out there ready to explain to us females how our choices aren't quite up to snuff, on one side of the political aisle or the other, and how we need to let someone else circumscribe them for us, lest we stray into danger or make unfair inroads into someone else's turf. As far as I'm concerned, if adults can establish households in which the bills get paid one way or another without reliance on violence, fraud, or handouts, and any kids under their roof are free from abusive neglect, everyone else can butt out.