Norwegian-American Sociologist and Economist, Leader of the Institutional Economics Movement
Thorstein Veblen, fully Thorstein Bunde Veblen, born Torsten Bunde Veblen
Norwegian-American Sociologist and Economist, Leader of the Institutional Economics Movement
Therefore the economic situation which so underlay and conditioned this modern point of view at the period when it was given its stable form becomes the necessary point of departure for any argument bearing on the changes that have been going forward since then, or on any prospective reconstruction that may be due to follow from these changed conditions in the calculable future. At this head, the students of history are in a singularly fortunate position. The whole case is set forth in the works of Adam Smith, with a comprehension and lucidity which no longer calls for praise. Beyond all other men Adam Smith is the approved and faithful spokesman of this modern point of view in all that concerns the economic situation which it assumes as its material ground; and his description of the state of civilized society, trade and industry, as he saw it in his time and as he wished it to stand over into the future, is to be taken without abatement as a competent exposition of those material conditions which were then conceived to underlie civilized society and to dictate the only sound reconstruction of civil and economic institutions according to the modern plan. Yet the Industrial Revolution does not lie within Adam Smith's "historical present," nor does his system of economic doctrines make provision for any of its peculiar issues. What he has to say on the mechanics of industry is conceived in terms derived from an older order of things than that machine industry which was beginning to get under way in his own life-time; and all his illustrative instances and arguments on trade and industry are also such as would apply to the state of things that was passing, but they are not drawn with any view to that new order which was then coming on in the world of business enterprise.
To this "natural" plan of free workmanship and free trade all restraint or retardation by collusion among business men was wholly obnoxious, and all collusive control of industry or of the market was accordingly execrated as unnatural and subversive. It is true, there were even then some appreciable beginnings of coercion and retardation -- lowering of wages and limitation of output -- by collusion between owners and employers who should by nature have been competitive producers of an unrestrained output of goods and services according to the principles of that modern point of view which animated Adam Smith and his generation; but coercion and unearned gain by a combination of ownership, of the now familiar corporate type, was virtually unknown in his time. So Adam Smith saw and denounced the dangers of unfair combination between "masters" for the exploitation of their workmen, but the modern use of credit and corporation finance for the collective control of the labor market and the goods market of course does not come within his horizon and does not engage his attention.
What is not doubtful, in the steel business or in any of the other industrial enterprises that run on a similar scale and a similar level of technology, is that the owners of the corporate capital have come in for a very substantial body of intangible assets of this kind, and that these assets of capitalized free income will foot up to several times the total value of the material assets which underlie them.
Women have been required not only to afford evidence of a life of leisure, but even to disable themselves for useful activity...the high heel, the skirt, the impracticable bonnet, the corset... are so many items of evidence to the effect that... the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man?that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she still is the man's chattel. The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence their master's ability to pay.
These ethnic types differ in temperament in a way somewhat similar to the difference between the predatory and the ante-predatory variants of the types; the dolicho-blond type showing more of the characteristics of the predatory temperament?or at least more of the violent disposition?than the brachycephalic-brunette type, and especially more than the Mediterranean.
Today (October, 1918) -- it is to be admitted with such emotion as may come to hand -- this question is one which can be entertained quite seriously, in the light of experience. In the recent past, as matters have stood up to the outbreak of the war, the ordinary rate of production in the essential industries under businesslike management has habitually and by deliberate contrivance fallen greatly short of productive capacity. This is an article of information which the experience of the war has shifted from the rubric of "Interesting if True" to that of "Common Notoriety."
Whatever approves itself to us on any ground at the outset, presently comes to appeal to us as a gratifying thing in itself; it comes to rest in our habits of thought as substantially right.
These indices and others which resemble them in point of the boldness with which they point out to all observers the habitual uselessness of those persons who employ them, have been replaced by other, more dedicate methods of expressing the same fact; methods which are no less evident to the trained eyes of that smaller, select circle whose good opinion is chiefly sought...As the community advances in wealth and culture, the ability to pay is put in evidence by means which require a progressively nicer discrimination in the beholder. This nicer discrimination between advertising media is in fact a very large element of the higher pecuniary culture.
Trained service has utility, not only as gratifying the master's instinctive liking for good and skillful workmanship and his propensity for conspicuous dominance over those whose lives are subservient to his own, but it has utility also as putting in evidence a much larger consumption of human service than would be shown by the mere present conspicuous leisure performed by an untrained person.
When an attempted reform involves the suppression or thorough-going remodeling of an institution of first-rate importance in the conventional scheme, it is immediately felt that a serious derangement of the entire scheme would result... that a readjustment of the structure to the new form taken on by one of its chief elements would be a painful and tedious, if not a doubtful process.
These supernumerary and preferential gains, "excess profits," or whatever words may best describe this class of free income, may be well deserved by these beneficiaries, or they may not. The income in question is, in any case, not created by the good deserts of the beneficiaries, however meritorious their conduct may be.
Under the altered conditions of population, skill, and knowledge, the facility of life as carried on according to the traditional scheme may not be lower than under the earlier conditions; but the chances are always that it is less than might be if the scheme were altered to suit the altered conditions.
When individuals, or even considerable groups of men, are segregated from a higher industrial culture and exposed to a lower cultural environment, or to an economic situation of a more primitive character, they quickly show evidence of reversion toward the spiritual features which characterize the predatory type; and it seems probable that the dolicho-blond type of European man is possessed of a greater facility for such reversion to barbarism than the other ethnic elements with which that type is associated in the Western culture.
They are apparently moved by a feeling that so long as the established arrangements are maintained they will come in for a little something over and above what would come to them if they were to make common cause with the undistinguished common lot. In other words, they have a vested interest in a narrow margin of preference over and above what goes to the common man. But this narrow margin of net gain over the common lot, this vested right to get a narrow margin of something for nothing, has hitherto been sufficient to shape their sentiments and outlook in such a way as, in effect, to keep them loyal to the large business interests with whom they negotiate for this narrow margin of preference.
Under the circumstances prevailing at any given time this [leisure] class is in a privileged position, and any departure from the existing order may be expected to work to the detriment of the class rather than the reverse. The attitude of the class... should therefore be to let well-enough alone. This interested motive comes in to supplement the strong instinctive bias of the class, and so to render it even more consistently conservative than it otherwise would be.
When the community passes from peaceable savagery to a predatory phase of life... opportunity and the incentive to emulate increase greatly... The activity of the men more and more takes on the character of exploit; and an invidious comparison... grows continually easier and more habitual. Tangible evidences of prowess?trophies?find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature... and booty serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggression...as a conventional evidence of successful contest. Therefore... the obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy...Labor acquires a character of irksomeness by virtue of the indignity imputed to it.
Things have changed in such a way since that time, that the ownership of property in large holdings now controls the nation's industry, and therefore it controls the conditions of life for those who are or wish to be engaged in industry; at the same time that the same ownership of large wealth controls the markets and thereby controls the conditions of life for those who have to resort to the markets to sell or to buy. In other words, it has come to pass with the change of circumstances that the rule of Live and Let Live now waits on the discretion of the owners of large wealth. In fact, those thoughtful men in the eighteenth century who made so much of these constituent principles of the modern point of view did not contemplate anything like the system of large wealth, large-scale industry, and large-scale commerce and credit which prevails today. They did not foresee the new order in industry and business, and the system of rights and obligations which they installed, therefore, made no provision for the new order of things that has come on since their time.
Under the new order of things the mechanical equipment ? the "industrial plant" -- takes the initiative, sets the pace, and turns the workman to account in the carrying-on of those standardized processes of production that embody this mechanistic state of the industrial arts; very much as the individual craftsman in his time held the initiative in industry, set the pace, and made use of his tools according to his own discretion in the exercise of his personal skill, dexterity and judgment, under that now obsolescent industrial order which underlies the eighteenth-century modern point of view, and which still colors the aspirations of Liberal statesmen and economists, as well as the standard economic theories. The workman -- and indeed it is still the skilled workman -- is always indispensable to the due working of this mechanistic industrial process, of course; very much as the craftsman's tools, in his time, were indispensable to the work which he had in hand. But the unit of industrial organization and procedure, what may be called the "going concern" in production, is now the outfit of industrial equipment, a works, engaged in a given standardized mechanical process designed to turn out a given output of standardized product; it is the plant, or the shop.
When the predatory habit of life has been settled upon the group by long habituation, it becomes the able-bodied man's accredited office in the social economy to kill, to destroy such competitors in the struggle for existence as attempt to resist or elude him, to overcome and reduce to subservience those alien forces that assert themselves refractorily in the environment.
This conservatism of the wealthy class is so obvious a feature that it has even come to be recognized as a mark of respectability...it has acquired a certain honorific or decorative value. It has become prescriptive to such an extent that an adherence to conservative views is comprised as a matter of course in our notions of respectability; and it is imperatively incumbent on all who would lead a blameless life in point of social repute.
Under the new order the going concern in production is the plant or shop, the works, not the individual workman.
When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. In the nature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the leisure class. Under the tabu, certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class.
This conspicuous leisure of which decorum is a ramification grows gradually into a laborious drill in deportment and an education in taste and discrimination as to what articles of consumption are decorous and what are the decorous methods of consuming them.
Under the regime of emulation the members of a modern industrial community are rivals, each of whom will best attain his individual and immediate advantage if, through an exceptional exemption from scruple, he is able serenely to overreach and injure his fellows when the chance offers.
Wherever the canon of conspicuous leisure has a chance undisturbed to work out its tendency, there will therefore emerge a secondary, and in a sense spurious, leisure class?abjectly poor and living in a precarious life of want and discomfort, but morally unable to stoop to gainful pursuits.