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 efforts...is 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
"...at 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."
"...by 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.