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
In the rare cases where it occurs, a failure to increase one's visible consumption when the means for an increase are at hand is felt in popular apprehension to call for explanation, and unworthy motives of miserliness are imputed to those who fall short in this respect.
It is currently believed that manners have progressively deteriorated as society has receded from the patriarchal stage.
It would be hazardous to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or of any service, however obviously its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product that the element of waste is in no way concerned in its value, immediately or remotely.
No such evidence of skillful workmanship, or of ingenious and effective adaptation of means to an end, will... enjoy the approbation of the modern civilized consumer unless it has the sanction of the Canon of conspicuous waste.
Property is still of the nature of trophy, but, with the cultural advance, it becomes more and more a trophy of successes scored in the game of ownership carried on between the members of the group under the quasi-peaceable methods of nomadic life.
So long as the group... still stood in close contact with other hostile groups, the utility of things or persons owned lay chiefly in an invidious comparison between their possessor and the enemy from whom they were taken...The man's prowess was still primarily the group's prowess, and the possessor of the booty felt himself to be primarily the keeper of the honor of his group. This appreciation of exploit from the communal point of view is met with also at later stages of social growth, especially as regards the laurels of war.
The ameliorations wrought in favor of the pecuniary interest in modern institutions tend... to substitute the "soulless" joint-stock corporation for the captain, and so they make also for the dispensability, of the great leisure-class function of ownership.
The conditions under which men lived in the most primitive stages of associated life that can properly be called human, seem to have been of a peaceful kind; and the character?the temperament and spiritual attitude of men under these early conditions or environment and institutions seems to have been of a peaceful and unaggressive, not to say an indolent, cast. For the immediate purpose this peaceable cultural stage may be taken to mark the initial phase of social development...evidence of its existence is to be found in psychological survivals, in the way of persistent and pervading traits of human character.
The emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership...for these two institutions result from the same set of economic forces.
The initial phase of ownership, the phase of acquisition by naive seizure and conversion, begins to pass into the subsequent stage of an incipient organization of industry on the basis of private property (in slaves); the horde develops into a more or less self-sufficing industrial community; possessions then come to be valued not so much as evidence of successful foray, but rather as evidence of the prepotence of the possessor of these goods over other individuals within the community.
The machine technology requires for its working a large and specialized mechanical apparatus, an ever increasingly large and increasingly elaborate material equipment. So also it requires a large and diversified supply of material resources, both in raw materials and in the way of motive power. It is only on condition that these requirements are met in some passable fashion that this industrial system will work at all, and it is only as these requirements are freely met that the machine industry will work at a high efficiency. At the same time the settled principles of law and usage and public policy handed down from the eighteenth century have in effect decided, and continue to decide, that all material wealth is, rightly, to be held in private ownership, and is to be made use of only subject to the unhampered discretion of the legally rightful owner. Meantime the highly productive state of the industrial arts embodied in the technological knowledge of the new order can be turned to account only by use of this material equipment and these natural resources which continue to be held in private ownership. From which it follows that these material means of industry, and the state of the industrial arts which these material means are to serve, can be turned to productive use only so far and on such conditions as the rightful owners of the material equipment and resources may choose to impose; which enables the owners of this indispensable material wealth, in effect, to take over the use of these industrial arts for their own sole profit. The owners of the community's material resources -- that is to say the investors in industrial business -- have in effect become "seized and possessed of" the community's joint stock of technological knowledge and efficiency.
The predatory temperament does not lead itself to all the purposes of modern life, and more especially not to modern industry.
The requirements of beauty... are for the most part best satisfied by inexpensive contrivances and structures.
The utility of the fast horse lies largely in his efficiency as a means of emulation; it gratifies the owner's sense of aggression and dominance to have his own horse outstrip his neighbor's. This use being not lucrative, but on the whole pretty consistently wasteful, and quite conspicuously so,it is honorific, and therefore gives the fast horse a strong presumptive position of reputability. Beyond this, the race-horse proper has also a similarly non-industrial but honorific use as a gambling instrument.
A divine assurance and an imperious complaisance, as of one habituated to require subservience and to take no thought for the morrow, is the birthright and the criterion of the gentleman at his best... this demeanor is accepted as an intrinsic attribute of superior worth, before which the base-born commoner delights to stoop and yield.
and all the while the owner of the equipment is some person who has contributed no more than his per-capita quota to this state of the industrial arts out of which his earnings arise. Indeed the chances are that the owner has contributed less than his per-capita quota, if anything, to that common fund of knowledge on the product of which he draws by virtue of his ownership, because he is likely to be fully occupied with other things, -- such things as lucrative business transactions, e.g., or the decent consumption of superfluities.
As the population increases in density, and as human relations grow more complex and numerous, all the details of life undergo a process of elaboration and selection; and in this process of elaboration the use of trophies develops into a system of rank, titles, degrees and insignia, typical examples of which are heraldic devices, medals, and honorary decorations.
But the kept classes also comprise many persons who are entitled to a free income on other grounds than their ownership and control of industry or the market, as, e.g., landlords and other persons classed as "gentry," the clergy, the Crown ? where there is a Crown -- and its agents, civil and military. Contrasted with these classes who make up the vested interests, and who derive an income from the established order of ownership and privilege, is the common man. He is common in the respect that he is not vested with such a prescriptive right to get something for nothing. And he is called common because such is the common lot of men under the new order of business and industry; and such will continue (increasingly) to be the common lot so long as the enlightened principles of secure ownership and self-help handed down from the eighteenth century continue to rule human affairs by help of the new order of industry.
Devout consumption is of the nature of vicarious consumption. This canon of devout austerity is based on the pecuniary reputability of conspicuously wasteful consumption, backed by the principle that vicarious consumption should conspicuously not conduce to the comfort of the vicarious consumer.
For a creative principle, capable of serving as motive to invention and innovation in fashions, we shall have to go back to the primitive, non-economic motive with which apparel originated?the motive of adornment...The changing styles are the expression of a restless search for something which shall commend itself to our aesthetic sense; but as each innovation is subject to the selective action of the norm of conspicuous waste, the range within which innovation can take place is somewhat restricted.
If it?s working were not disturbed by other economic forces or other features of the emulative process, the immediate effect of... a pecuniary struggle... would be to make men industrious and frugal...This is more especially true of the laboring classes in a sedentary community which is at an agricultural stage of industry, in which there is a considerable subdivision of industry, and whose laws and customs secure to these classes a more or less definite share of the product of their industry...since labor is their recognized and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work.
In making use of the term "invidious"... there is no intention to extol or depreciate, or to commend or deplore any of the phenomena which the word is used to characterize. The term is used in a technical sense as describing a comparison of persons with a view to rating and grading them in respect of relative worth or value?in an aesthetic or moral sense?and so awarding and defining the relative degrees of complacency with which they may legitimately be contemplated by themselves and by others. An invidious comparison is a process of valuation of persons in respect of worth.
In the struggle to outdo one another the city population push their normal standard of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, with the result that a relatively greater expenditure in this direction is required to indicate a given degree of pecuniary decency in the city...this requirement of decent appearance must be lived up to on pain of losing caste.
It is especially the latter-day system of transport and communication as it works out under the new order highly mechanical and exactingly scheduled for time, date and place -- that so controls and standardizes the ordinary life of the common man on mechanical lines.
Leisure held the first place at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above wasteful consumption of goods... From that point onward, consumption has gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds the primacy.