Veblen

The Work

There are at least three Thorstein Veblens: first, the seriously un-serious, reverently irreverent, amoral moralist whose iconoclastic assault onthe received pieties of America place him in the front ranks of social critics.Second, there is the economist whose institutional economics and meticulousanatomy of American high finance and business enterprise have earned himseveral generations of distinguished followers and a permanent niche amongthe greats of political economy. Finally, there is the sociologist to whom weowe theories of socially induced motivations, of the social determinants ofknowledge, and of social change. This account will be concerned mainly withthe third Veblen.

It is difficult to summarize the major aspects of Veblen's thought not onlybecause he wrote in a complicated, illusive, and polysyllabic style, but also be-cause he lacked a systematic exposition and deliberately attempted to pass onhis highly charged value judgments as statements of fact.

In a writer like Marx it is relatively easy to distinguish analysis fromprophecy, and normative from scientific judgment; not so with Veblen. Al-though he used to repeat to his students, "We are interested in what is, not inwhat ought to be," even the casual reader will soon discover that behind thescientific stance were hidden strong moral impulses. For example, it is hardto take him seriously when he insists that he uses the term "waste" in aneutral sense, and that "it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying anillegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life." Nor is hisuse of what Kenneth Burke has termed a perspective through incongruity,innocent of moral connotations, as when he compares the livery of servantswith the vestments of the priest, "a body servant, constructively in attendanceupon the person of the divinity whose livery he wears." When Veblen deliber-ately links words with respectable and dishonorable meanings such as "trainedincapacity," "business sabotage," "blameless cupidity," "conscientious withhold-ing of efficiency," "collusive sobriety" or "sagacious restriction of output," heuses these balanced opposites to pass moral judgment under the protectivecoloration of detached description. Veblen belonged to the company of Swiftas well as to that of Marx.

These are some of the difficulties in attempting to separate the sub-stantive content of Veblen's thought from its ethical husk. But the obstaclesare not insurmountable, although, incidentally, Veblen himself would hardlyhave approved of the enterprise.

From Coser, 1977:263-264.


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