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
People of scholarly pursuits are unavoidably thrown into contact with classes that are pecuniarily their superiors... there is no class of the community that spends a larger proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these.
So also such a matter-of-fact project of reconstruction will be likely materially to revise outstanding credit obligations, including corporation securities, or perhaps even bluntly to disallow claims of this character to free income on the part of beneficiaries who can show no claim on grounds of current tangible performance. All of which is inimical to the best good of the vested interests and the kept classes. Reconstruction which partakes of this character in any sensible degree will necessarily be viewed with the liveliest apprehension by the gentlemanly statesmen of the old school, by the kept classes, and by the captains of finance. It will be deplored as a subversion of the economic order, a destruction of the country's wealth, a disorganization of industry, and a sure way to poverty, bloodshed, and pestilence. In point of fact, of course, what such a project may be counted on to subvert is that dominion of ownership by which the vested interests control and retard the rate and volume of production. The destruction of wealth, in such a case will touch, directly, only the value of the securities, not the material objects to which these securities have given title of ownership; it would be a disallowance of ownership, not a destruction of useful goods. Nor need any disorganization or disability of productive industry follow from such a move; indeed, the apprehended cancelment of the claims to income covered by negotiable securities would by that much cancel the fixed overhead charges resting on industrial enterprise, and so further production by that much. But for those persons and classes whose keep is drawn from prescriptive rights of ownership or of privilege the consequences of such a shifting of ground from vested interest to tangible performance would doubtless be deplorable.
That such has been the practical outcome is due to the fact that these enlightened principles of the eighteenth century comprise as their chief article the "natural" right of ownership. The later course of events has decided that the ownership of property in sufficiently large blocks will control the country's industrial system and thereby take over the disposal of the community's net output of product over cost; on which the vested interests live and on which, therefore, the kept classes feed. Hence the chief concern of those gentlemanly national governments that have displaced the dynastic states is always and consistently the maintenance of the rights of ownership and investment.
The ceremonial inferiority or uncleanness in consumable goods due to "commonness," or... slight cost of production, has been taken very seriously by many persons. The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favorable invidious comparison with other consumers. Hence... the sight of such goods, is inseparable from an odious suggestion of the lower levels of human life... a pervading sense of meanness that is extremely distasteful and depressing.
The domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the ‚clat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers...hence the exclusiveness of people, as regards their domestic life, in most of the industrially developed communities; and... the habit of privacy and reserve that is so large a feature in the code of proprieties of the better class in all communities.
The forces which make for a readjustment of institutions, especially in the case of a modern industrial community, are, in the last analysis, almost entirely of an economic nature.
the keepers of the established order will always look to evasion and entertain a hope of avoiding casualties and holding the line by the use of a cleverly designed masquerade.
The ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian stages of culture, apparently with the seizure of female captives...This was followed by an extension of slavery to other captives and inferiors, besides women, and by an extension of ownership-marriage to other women than those seized from the enemy.
The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure... not only consumes... beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialization as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities...Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.
The test to which all expenditure must be brought... is the question whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the whole-whether it furthers the life process taken impersonally. For this is the basis of award of the instinct of workmanship, and that instinct is the court of final appeal in any question of economic truth or adequacy. It is a question as to the award rendered by a dispassionate common sense.
There arises a class of servants, the more numerous the better, whose sole office is fatuously to wait upon the person of their owner, and so to put in evidence his ability unproductively to consume a large amount of service...while one group produces goods for him, another group, usually headed by the wife, or chief, consumes for him in conspicuous leisure.
All wastefulness is offensive to native taste. The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men?and women perhaps even in a higher degree?abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure... But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly.
As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labor, the energies of the industrious members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous expenditure, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace...this want ...is indefinitely expansible, after the manner commonly imputed in economic theory to higher or spiritual wants. It is owing chiefly to... this... that J. S. Mill was able to say that "hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being."
Born in iniquity and conceived in sin, the spirit of nationalism has never ceased to bend human institutions to the service of dissension and distress.
Commonly, if not invariably, the honorific marks of hand labor are certain imperfections and irregularities in the lines of the hand-wrought article, showing where the workman has fallen short in the execution of the design. The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought goods, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness.
Even if the institution of a leisure class had not come in with the first emergence of individual ownership, by force of the dishonor attaching to productive employment, it would in any case have come in as one of the early consequences of ownership.
Hence has arisen that exaltation of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time; and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up... And hence also the propaganda for a return to handicraft and household industry. So much of the work and speculations of this group of men... would have been impossible at a time when the visibly more perfect goods were not the cheaper.
In any community where conspicuous consumption is an element of the scheme of life, an increase in an individual's ability to pay is likely to take the form of an expenditure for some accredited line of conspicuous consumption.
In the later barbarian culture society attained settled methods of acquisition and possession under the quasi-peaceable regime of status. Simple aggression and unrestrained violence in great measure gave place to shrewd practice and chicanery, as the best approved method of accumulating wealth.
It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life; and it may in this way become as indispensable as any other item of the consumer's habitual expenditure.
It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed.
Men's present habits of thought tend to persist indefinitely, except as circumstances enforce a change. These institutions... these habits of thought, points of view, mental attitudes and aptitudes, or what not, are therefore themselves a conservative factor. This is the factor of social inertia, psychological inertia, conservatism.
Personal contact with the hired persons... is commonly distasteful to the occupants of the house, but their presence is endured and paid for, in order to delegate to them a share in this onerous consumption of household goods. The presence of domestic servants... is a concession of physical comfort to the moral need of pecuniary decency.
So far as concerns the communities of the Western culture, this [quasi-peaceable] phase of economic development probably lies in the past; except for a numerically small though very conspicuous fraction of the community in whom the habits of thought peculiar to the barbarian culture have suffered but a relatively slight disintegration.
That the alleged beauty, or "loveliness," of the styles in vogue at any given time is transient and spurious only is attested by the fact that none of the many shifting fashions will bear the test of time. When seen in the perspective of half-a-dozen years or more, the best of our fashions strike us as grotesque, if not unsightly.