Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Affluent, The Extravegant, The Absurd: Mr. Veblen's Classic Critique

I recently finished reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.  It is a fascinating look into the social mores and norms of the wealthy during the late Victorian era and how their behavior affected society at large.  His book was published in 1899.

The book is definitely heavy reading and it took me quite some time to digest its 258 pages.  However, it was well worth the time invested and has enlightened my perspectives regarding how the world works and often continues to work despite the date on the calendar.  

The book is a mixture of thoughtful insight sprinkled with rapier wit and cutting criticism.

Here are some interesting quotes:

Regarding Desire for Wealth

"Visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem."

"[Man's goal] is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to some other end by another agent."

"The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation."

"Those members of the community who fall short...suffer in esteem of their fellowmen; and consequently they suffer also in their own esteem...apparent exceptions to the rule are met with, especially among people with strong religious convictions."

"In any community where goods are held in severalty it is necessary, in order to ensure his own peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others.  But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did.  The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth."

Regarding Presentation of Wealth Through Action

"In order to gain and hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power.  The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence."

"Few of us, if any, can dissociate an offense against etiquette from a sense of the substantial unworthiness of the offender.  A breach of faith may be condoned, but a breach of decorum cannot."

"The pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time."

Regarding Presentation of Wealth Through Consumption

"Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity."

"Infirmities induced by over indulgence are among some peoples freely recognized as manly attributes."

"The only practicable means of impressing one's pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic observers of one's everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of ability to pay."

"If the canon of conspicuous consumption were not offset to a considerable extent by other features of human nature, alien to it, any saving should logically be impossible..."

Regarding Living a Wealthy Lifestyle

"It is notoriously just as difficult to recede from a "high" standard of living as it is to lower a standard which is already relatively low; although in the former case the difficulty is a moral one,

"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."

"The standard of expenditure which commonly guides our an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach; or to reach which requires some strain."

"With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper."

Regarding the Wealthy Standards of Taste

"The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance than the small thief of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law; and some good repute accrues to him from his increased wealth and from his spending the irregularly acquired possessions in a seemly manner."

"...the hand wrought spoon gratifies our taste, our sense of the beautiful while that made by machinery out of the base metal has no useful office beyond a brute efficiency."

"The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty."

"What productive use [a race horse] may possess, in the way of enhancing the well being of the community or making the way of life easier for men, takes the form of exhibitions of force and facility of motion that gratify the popular aesthetic sense."

Regarding Dressing In a Wealthy Way

" no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress."

"The need of dress is eminently a 'higher' or spiritual need."

"Even more strikingly than the everyday habit of the priest, the vestments, properly so called, are ornate, grotesque, inconvenient, and, at least ostensibly, comfortless to the point of distress."

Regarding Institutions and the Affect of the Wealthy on Society

"The evolution of social structure has been a process of natural selection of institutions."

"Institutions are, in substance, prevalent habits of thought with respect to particular relations and particular functions of the individual and of the community."

"Institutions are the products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present."

" virtue of its high position as the avatar of good form, the wealthier class comes to exert a retarding influence upon social development far in excess of that which the simple numerical strength of the class would assign it."

"...privation among the body of the people is a serious obstacle to any innovation."

Regarding Foundational Traits of the Wealthy

"Freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty, and regard for human life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further the success of an individual in the pecuniary culture.  The highly successful men of all times have commonly been of this type."

"The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicanery..."

"[Industrial society's best interest is served by] honesty, diligence, peacefulness, good will, an absence of self seeking, and an habitual recognition and apprehension of causal sequence..."

Regarding Attitudes of the Wealthy

"[Regarding spiritual maturing] those who fail on the average remain as an undissolved residue of crude humanity in the modern industrial community."

"[College sports are] expressions of an attitude of emulative ferocity...deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess."

"The addiction of sports, therefore, in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man's moral nature."

"The leisure class canon demands strict and comprehensive futility; the instinct of workmanship demands purposeful action."

Regarding The Wealthy and Devout Observances

"A believer is eminently a person who knows how to obey and accept chastisement with good grace."

"In economic theory, sacred holidays are obviously to be construed as a season of vicarious leisure performed for the divinity or saint in whose name the tabu is imposed and to whose good repute the abstention from useful effort on these days is conceived to inure."

"It is not ordinarily in good form for the priestly class to appear well fed or in hilarious spirits."

"The leisure class acts to conserve, and even to rehabilitate, that archaic type of human nature and those elements of the archaic culture which the industrial evolution of society in its later stages acts to eliminate."

"A still more characteristic and more pervasive alien element in the motives which have gone to formally uphold the scheme of devout life is that non reverent sense of the aesthetic congruity with the environment which is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimination of its anthropomorphic content."

"...the generation which follows a season of war is apt to witness a rehabilitation of the element of status, both in its social life and it its scheme of devout observances and other symbolic or ceremonial forms."

Regarding the Wealthy and Attitudes Toward Education

"Athletics have an obvious advantage over the classics for the purpose of leisure class learning, since success as an athlete presumes, not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money, as well as the possession of certain highly unindustrial archaic traits of character and temperament."


It appears that Mr. Veblen never played ball much.  However, the quotes do make me chuckle even if I disagree with some of his points.  Some of his insights are dead on though, especially regarding human nature and our desire to compare ourselves to one another.  I am impressed with his comments regarding institutions never being adequate for present needs.  As a Legislator, I agree with this assessment.  I highly recommend this book.


  1. Here are some of my favorites from your list:

    "The pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time."

    "Even more strikingly than the everyday habit of the priest, the vestments, properly so called, are ornate, grotesque, inconvenient, and, at least ostensibly, comfortless to the point of distress."

    I think of tuxedo shoes... and that's why I don't wear them!

    "Freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty, and regard for human life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further the success of an individual in the pecuniary culture. The highly successful men of all times have commonly been of this type."

    So sad and so true. Think of Alexander "the Great."

    "The addiction of sports, therefore, in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man's moral nature."

    I found a soul mate! I don't play ball either!

    The comments were very insightful.

    The Senate, as originally conceived by the framers, was intended to represent the landed & wealthy class of Americans (see Madison's notes on the Convention of 1787). This is why the Senate has prerogative over all things when it comes to foreign treaties, confirming judges, advising the president, etc. because the members of this house were to come from this wiser and more virtuous class of citizens - and thus they would be fit to the task. The house of representatives was to represent the people.

    The Senate was not intended to represent the states as is generally believed today. The compromise of 2 senators from each state basically gave the wealthy, landed class from all states an equal seat at the table in the Senate. The senate was the way that the rights of the minority (rich) would not be trampled by the majority (the rest).

    Things have certainly changed since then. Among other things, we have learned that the rich are no more virtuous today than the rest of us and that their crimes often cost thousands - or millions of lives - whereas the crimes of the normal guy can't possibly extend to that number.

    The senate and our executive branch (with some isolated exceptions) have generally ceased to perform the function of the wise, virtuous and noble leaders intended for their roles a long time ago. The good of the country was sacrificed on the altar of partisanship a long time ago.

    Here's an idea - I think we need to revise the Senate: make it a body of truly wise and virtuous people representing the Rights of man and natural law.

    Requirements: no nude photos shall have been posted online - ever, no photos in tiger suits, no adultery, no stolen money found stuffed in freezers, eagle scouts for the men, a happy family, pretty much never have served in any elected office ever, etc. They would be voted in for life and they could be removed by impeachment or a vote of the people... There's my recommendation.

    The house of representatives can remain as is - representing the rest of society - the good and the bad with all the winds of the changing seasons - as it was designed originally.

    This way we have the true balance between ancient liberty (the will of the people) and modern liberty (the protection of the natural rights of humanity). We would stay out of most wars, would stop spending on pet projects, would protect the rights of human beings, and progress the cause of unadulterated freedom.

    Government is the best mirror into the heart of society. We aint pretty - time for a change.

    Anyways, I digress.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Ken,

    Great ideas on the Senate. The moral virtue aspect is so important. Once a man disconnects his public persona from his personal life, all kinds of mischief and trouble can begin to brew. It is true that some moral men can be poor leaders, i.e. Jimmy Carter, but the damage that immoral men can do is potentially far greater.

    One of the concepts in the book talks about the changes that industrialism was causing in society. It was making the middle class larger but at the same time less spiritual. It was the upper class at the time that maintained the decorum and tradition of spirituality as leaders of the masses.

    Industrialization has progressed now to the point that much of the nouveau riche do not hold to nor maintain the old ways of devout observance. As a nation, we have a wealthy class who are affluent yet who are largely unbelieving or apathetic to spiritual matters. The spiritual backstop that was cemented in the class structure from the last century has eroded over the past 100 years. Perhaps it's the ironic result of the success of American opportunity and mertiocracy.


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