Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, Part II


Jason Collins


May 16, 2011

Following last week’s post on Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, I’ve progressed through some more of the book (to chapter 9). It hasn’t got any easier to read, but Veblen’s interesting observations on conspicuous consumption, beauty and evolution keep flowing.

One of his more interesting perspectives is on how costliness masquerades under the name of beauty. Veblen argues that cost determines what is considered beautiful, with the marks of expensiveness becoming known as beauty. Veblen states that “beauty, in the naive sense of the word, is the occasion rather than the ground of their monopolization or of their commercial value.” It is rarity and exclusivity that determines beauty.

This leads to ideas such as imperfections in goods, which are evidence of being hand and not machine-made, becoming signs of beauty. Counterfeits lose their beauty on being identified as such. Or take fashion. Each year the fashion changes, which is wasteful - and people prefer the more recent fashions to the older ones. But suppose we showed fashion from today and ten years ago to someone from 200 years ago. Would they perceive any difference in beauty?

Veblen applies this concept to beauty in women, with tastes shifting from “women of physical presence” to a “lady” as conspicuous consumption and leisure grew. The less suited a woman is for work, the more waste and hence conspicuous consumption and the more beautiful she would be perceived.

Veblen follows his discussion of beauty with a series of evolutionary arguments on the nature of the leisure class. His line is often difficult to follow, with the boundary between social and genetic selection unclear. His underlying agenda, a critique of the leisure class, also clouds his arguments.

On social selection, Veblen notes that the fittest habits of thought will survive and that the selection of institutions affects the selection of people within society. Institutions change fast, so the selection of people cannot keep up. Further, changes which may be good for society as a whole may be bad for certain people. Veblen’s discussion provides a nice picture of a dynamic environment and selection pressures that vary with it.

Having painted this dynamic picture, Veblen then writes of how slow society is to change and how conservative society is. Veblen argues that the leisure class is able to keep society conservative through withdrawing the means of sustenance to the industrial class. As a result, the industrial class does not have the resources to invest in new ideas and habits and even if they did gain some surplus, that would be wasted on the conspicuous consumption that the leisure class has established as the societal norm.

On an individual level, Veblen considers there are two basic types - predatory and peaceful. Predatory types are violent (in certain stages of society), selfish and dishonest and are not diligent. Peaceful types are the opposite. Precisely which traits are expressed will depend on the state of society - although the spectrum of predatory to peaceful roughly coincides with the spectrum of blonde through brunette to Mediterranean ethnicities.

Veblen suggests that society progressed from a peaceful, native state, to a barbarian state, before shifting back towards the more peaceful modern society. Peaceful traits were selected for in the native state, and predatory traits selected for in the barbarian states. Veblen states, however, that selection did not eliminate all the peaceful traits in the barbarian era, allowing peaceful traits to be present in modern society.

As to how these traits are distributed, Veblen sees the leisure class as the predatory type and the industrial class of the peaceful type. The leisure class is not able to be violent in modern society, so they use more “peaceful predatory” methods, such as fraud. The industrial class is not in need of predatory habits, with Veblen suggesting that “economic man” in the sense of the selfish person (an indirect slight on Adam Smith) is useless for modern society. It is by being diligent and honest that the industrial man thrives.

Veblen’s shot at “economic man” is not particularly effective. He mixes group and individual selection and does not recognise that selfishness is required, in an evolutionary sense, for all people. The reason industrial man is diligent is because that is how he benefits. If he did not benefit, he would be selected against and disappear. The fact society benefits is the operation of Smith’s invisible hand.

Despite his categorisation of types between classes, Veblen strangely suggests that there are no broad character differences between the leisure class and the rest. He states that some predatory behaviour persists in the industrial class due to the behaviour of the leisure class. He also notes that people in the leisure class, by virtue of their resources, are not subject to harsh selection pressure, so peaceful characteristics can persist. What is most determinative of the traits in the leisure class are those traits which lead to admission to the class. While these have changed over time (say raw violence to fraud), they are generally of a predatory nature. It is not easy to gel this position of no difference with his earlier statements, and I am not sure they can be reconciled. My one suggestion is that the differences will grow if the current institutional framework continues to exist.

Although Veblen has addressed some evolutionary issues, Veblen has not addressed the questions I asked in my earlier post about the basis for the desire for reputation and status. Of the evolutionary arguments he has used, they are generally focused on the welfare of the group and society and not the specific individual’s interests. I am looking forward to seeing if he takes these ideas any further in the rest of the book.

The link to a full review is here.