From Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: AnEconomic Study of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1902), pp.68-101.
In what has been said of the evolution of the vicarious leisureclass and its differentiation from the general body of the workingclasses, reference has been made to a further division of labour,--that between different servant classes. One portion of the servantclass, chiefly those persons whose occupation is vicarious leisure,come to undertake a new, subsidiary range of duties--the vicariousconsumption of goods. The most obvious form in which this consumptionoccurs is seen in the wearing of liveries and the occupation ofspacious servants' quarters. Another, scarcely less obtrusive or lesseffective form of vicarious consumption, and a much more widelyprevalent one, is the consumption of food, clothing, dwelling, andfurniture by the lady and the rest of the domestic establishment.
But already at a point in economic evolution far antedating theemergence of the lady, specialised consumption of goods as anevidence of pecuniary strength had begun to work out in a more orless elaborate system. The beginning of a differentiation inconsumption even antedates the appearance of anything that can fairlybe called pecuniary strength. It is traceable back to the initialphase of predatory culture, and there is even a suggestion that anincipient differentiation in this respect lies back of the beginningsof the predatory life. . . .
In the earlier phases of the predatory culture the only economicdifferentiation is a broad distinction between an honourable superiorclass made up of the able-bodied men on the one side, and a baseinferior class of labouring women on the other. According to theideal scheme of life in force at that time it is the office of themen to consume what the women produce. Such consumption as falls tothe women is merely incidental to their work; it is a means to theircontinued labour, and not a consumption directed to their own comfortand fullness of life. Unproductive consumption of goods ishonourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of humandignity; secondarily it becomes substantially honourable in itself,especially the consumption of the more desirable things. Theconsumption of choice articles of food, and frequently also of rarearticles of adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and ifthere is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu holds also for them.With a further advance in culture this tabu may change into simplecustom of a more or less rigorous character; but whatever be thetheoretical basis of the distinction which is maintained, whether itbe a tabu or a larger conventionality, the features of theconventional scheme of consumption do not change easily. When thequasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamentalinstitution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or lessrigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class shouldconsume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. In thenature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to theleisure class. Under the tabu, certain victuals, and moreparticularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use ofthe superior class.
The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in theuse of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these articles ofconsumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific.Therefore the base classes, primarily the women, practise an enforcedcontinence with respect to these stimulants, except in countrieswhere they are obtainable at a very low cost. From archaic times downthrough all the length of the patriarchical regime it has been theoffice of the women to prepare and administer these luxuries, and ithas been the perquisite of the men of gentle birth and breeding toconsume them. Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences ofthe free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to becomehonorific, as being a mark, at the second remove, of the superiorstatus of those who are able to afford the indulgence. Infirmitiesinduced by over-indulgence are among some peoples freely recognisedas manly attributes. It has even happened that the name for certaindiseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin haspassed into everyday speech as a synonym for "noble" or "gentle." Itis only at a relatively early stage of culture that the symptoms ofexpensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks of a superiorstatus, and so tend to become virtues and command the deference ofthe community; but the reputability that attaches to certainexpensive vices long retains so much of its force as to appreciablylessen the disapprobation visited upon the men of the wealthy ornoble class for any excessive indulgence. The same invidiousdistinction adds force to the current disapproval of any indulgenceof this kind on the part of women, minors, and inferiors. Thisinvidious traditional distinction has not lost its force even amongthe more advanced peoples of to-day. Where the example set by theleisure class retains its imperative force in the regulation of theconventionalities, it is observable that the women still in greatmeasure practise the same traditional continence with regard tostimulants.
During the earlier stages of economic development, consumption ofgoods without stint, especially consumption of the better grades ofgoods,--ideally all consumption in excess of the subsistence minimum,--pertains normally to the leisure class. This restriction tends todisappear, at least formally, after the later peaceable stage hasbeen reached, with private ownership of goods and an industrialsystem based on wage labour or on the petty household economy. Butduring the earlier quasi-peaceable stage, when so many of thetraditions through which the institution of a leisure class hasaffected the economic life of later times were taking form andconsistency, this principle has had the force of a conventional law.It has served as the norm to which consumption has tended to conform,and any appreciable departure from it is to be regarded as anaberrant form, sure to be eliminated sooner or later in the furthercourse of development.
The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumesof the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence andphysical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes aspecialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. Heconsumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter,services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements,amulets, and idols or divinities. In the process of gradualamelioration which takes place in the articles of his consumption,the motive principle and the proximate aim of innovation is no doubtthe higher efficiency of the improved and more elaborate products forpersonal comfort and well-being. But that does not remain the solepurpose of their consumption. The canon of reputability is at handand seizes upon such innovations as are, according to its standard,fit to survive. Since the consumption of these more excellent goodsis an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, thefailure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark ofinferiority and demerit.
This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitativeexcellence in eating, drinking, etc., presently affects not only themanner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity ofthe gentleman of leisure. He is no longer simply the successful,aggressive male,--the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. Inorder to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes, forit now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicetybetween the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes aconnoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, inmanly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, inweapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of theaesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands madeupon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change hislife of leisure into a more or less arduous application to thebusiness of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in abecoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentlemanmust consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is therequirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner.His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence arise goodmanners in the way pointed out in an earlier chapter. High-bredmanners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm ofconspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.
Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means ofreputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates onhis hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently puthis opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends andcompetitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving ofvaluable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments. Presentsand feasts had probably another origin than that of naiveostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose veryearly, and they have retained that character to the present; so thattheir utility in this respect has now long been the substantialground on which these usages rest. Costly entertainments, such as thepotlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. Thecompetitor with whom the entertainer wishes to institute a comparisonis, by this method, made to sense as a means to the end. He consumesvicariously for his host at the same time that he is a witness to theconsumption of that excess of good things which his host is unable todispose of single-handed, and he is also made to witness his host'sfacility in etiquette.
As wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further infunction and structure, and there arises a differentiation within theclass. There is a more or less elaborate system of rank and grades.This differentiation is furthered by the inheritance of wealth andthe consequent inheritance of gentility. With the inheritance ofgentility goes the inheritance of obligatory leisure; and gentilityof a sufficient potency to entail a life of leisure may be inheritedwithout the complement of wealth required to maintain a dignifiedleisure. Gentle blood may be transmitted without goods enough toafford a reputably free consumption at one's ease. Hence results aclass of impecunious gentlemen of leisure, incidentally referred toalready. These half-caste gentlemen of leisure fall into a system ofhierarchical gradations. Those who stand near the higher and thehighest grades of the wealthy leisure class, in point of birth, or inpoint of wealth, or both, outrank the remoter-born and thepecuniarily weaker. These lower grades, especially the impecunious,or marginal, gentlemen of leisure, affiliate themselves by a systemof dependence or fealty to the great ones; by so doing they gain anincrement of repute, or of the means with which to lead a life ofleisure, from their patron. They become his courtiers or retainers,servants; and being fed and countenanced by their patron they areindices of his rank and vicarious consumers of his superfluouswealth. Many of these affiliated gentlemen of leisure are at the sametime lesser men of substance in their own right; so that some of themare scarcely at all, others only partially, to be rated as vicariousconsumers. So many of them, however, as make up the retainers andhangers-on of the patron may be classed as vicarious consumerswithout qualification. Many of these again, and also many of theother aristocracy of less degree, have in turn attached to theirpersons a more or less comprehensive group of vicarious consumers inthe persons of their wives and children, their servants, retainers,etc.
With the disappearance of servitude, the number of vicariousconsumers attached to any one gentleman tends, on the whole, todecrease. The like is of course true, and perhaps in a still higherdegree, of the number of dependents who perform vicarious leisure forhim. In a general way, though not wholly nor consistently, these twogroups coincide. The dependent who was first delegated for theseduties was the wife, or the chief wife; and, as would be expected, inthe later development of the institution, when the number of personsby whom these duties are customarily performed gradually narrows, thewife remains the last. In the higher grades of society a large volumeof both these kinds of service is required; and here the wife is ofcourse still assisted in the work by a more or less numerous corps ofmenials. But as we descend the social scale, the point is presentlyreached where the duties of vicarious leisure and consumption devolveupon the wife alone. In the communities of the Western culture, thispoint is at present found among the lower middle class.
And here occurs a curious inversion. It is a fact of commonobservation that in this lower middle class there is no pretence ofleisure on the part of the head of the household. Through force ofcircumstances it has fallen into disuse. But the middle-class wifestill carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good nameof the household and its master . In descending the social scale inany modern industrial community, the primary fact--the conspicuousleisure of the master of the household-- disappears at a relativelyhigh point. The head of the middle-class household has been reducedby economic circumstances to turn his hand to gaining a livelihood byoccupations which often partake largely of the character of industry,as in the case of the ordinary business man of today. But thederivative fact--the vicarious leisure and consumption rendered bythe wife, and the auxiliary vicarious performance of leisure bymenials--remains in vogue as a conventionality which the demands ofreputability will not suffer to be slighted. It is by no means anuncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with theutmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form render forhim that degree of vicarious leisure which the common sense of thetime demands.
The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, nota simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariablyoccurs disguised under some form of work or household duties orsocial amenities, which prove on analysis to serve little or noulterior end beyond showing that she does not and need not occupyherself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use.As has already been noticed under the head of manners, the greaterpart of the customary round of domestic cares to which themiddle-class housewife gives her time and effort is of thischaracter. Not that the results of her attention to householdmatters, of a decorative and mundificatory character, are notpleasing to the sense of men trained in middle-class proprieties; butthe taste to which these effects of household adornment and tidinessappeal is a taste which has been formed under the selective guidanceof a canon of propriety that demands just these evidences of wastedeffort. The effects are pleasing to us chiefly because we have beentaught to find them pleasing. There goes into these domestic dutiesmuch solicitude for a proper combination of form and colour, and forother ends that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense ofthe term; and it is not denied that effects having some substantialaesthetic value are sometimes attained. Pretty much all that is hereinsisted on is that, as regards these amenities of life, thehousewife's efforts are under the guidance of traditions that havebeen shaped by the law of conspicuously wasteful expenditure of timeand substance. If beauty or comfort is achieved,--and it is a more orless fortuitous circumstance if they are,-- they must be achieved bymeans and methods that commend themselves to the great economic lawof wasted effort. The more reputable, "presentable" portion ofmiddle-class household paraphernalia are, on the one hand, items ofconspicuous consumption, and on the other hand, apparatus for puttingin evidence the vicarious leisure rendered by the housewife.
The requirement of vicarious consumption at the hands of the wifecontinues in force even at a lower point in the pecuniary scale thanthe requirement of vicarious leisure. At a point below which littleif any pretence of wasted effort, in ceremonial cleanness and thelike, is observable, and where there is assuredly no consciousattempt at ostensible leisure, decency still requires the wife toconsume some goods conspicuously for the reputability of thehousehold and its head. So that, as the latter-day outcome of thisevolution of an archaic institution, the wife, who was at the outsetthe drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory,--theproducer of goods for him to consume,--has become the ceremonialconsumer of goods which he produces. But she still quite unmistakablyremains his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering ofvicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfreeservant.
This vicarious consumption practised by the household of themiddle and lower classes can not be counted as a direct expression ofthe leisure-class scheme of life, since the household of thispecuniary grade does not belong within the leisure class. It israther that the leisure-class scheme of life here comes to anexpression at the second remove. The leisure class stands at the headof the social structure in point of reputability; and its manner oflife and its standards of worth therefore afford the norm ofreputability for the community. The observance of these standards, insome degree of approximation, becomes incumbent upon all classeslower in the scale. In modern civilized communities the lines ofdemarcation between social classes have grown vague and transient,and wherever this happens the norm of reputability imposed by theupper class extends its coercive influence with but slight hindrancedown through the social structure to the lowest strata. The result isthat the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency thescheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend theirenergies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting their goodname and their self-respect in case of failure, they must conform tothe accepted code, at least in appearance.
The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrialcommunity ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means ofshowing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a goodname, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods.Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scaleas it remains possible; and in the lower strata in which the twomethods are employed, both offices are in great part delegated to thewife and children of the household. Lower still, where any degree ofleisure, even ostensible, has become impracticable for the wife, theconspicuous consumption of goods remains and is carried on by thewife and children. The man of the household also can do something inthis direction, and, indeed, he commonly does; but with a still lowerdescent into the levels of indigence--along the margin of theSlums--the man, and presently also the children, virtually cease toconsume valuable goods for appearances, and the woman remainsvirtually the sole exponent of the household's pecuniary decency. Noclass of society not even the most abjectly poor, foregoes allcustomary conspicuous consumption. The last items of this category ofconsumption are not given up except under stress of the direstnecessity. Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured beforethe last trinket or the last pretence of pecuniary decency is putaway. There is no class and no country that has yielded so abjectlybefore the pressure of physical want as to deny themselves allgratification of this higher or spiritual need.
From the foregoing survey of the growth of conspicuous leisure andconsumption, it appears that the utility of both alike for thepurposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is commonto both. In the one case it is a waste of time and effort, in theother it is a waste of goods. Both are methods of demonstrating thepossession of wealth, and the two are conventionally accepted asequivalents. The choice between them is a question of advertisingexpediency simply, except so far as it may be affected by otherstandards of propriety springing from a different source. On groundsof expediency the preference may be given to the one or the other atdifferent stages of the economic development. The question is, whichof the two methods will most effectively reach the persons whoseconvictions it is desired to affect. Usage has answered this questionin different ways under different circumstances.
So long as the community or social group is small enough andcompact enough to be effectually reached by common notoriety alone,--that is to say, so long as the human environment to which theindividual is required to adapt himself in respect of reputability iscomprised within his sphere of personal acquaintance andneighbourhood gossip, --so long the one method is about as effectiveas the other. Each will therefore serve about equally well during theearlier stages of social growth. But when the differentiation hasgone farther and it becomes necessary to reach a wider humanenvironment, consumption begins to hold over leisure as an ordinarymeans of decency. This is especially true during the later, peaceableeconomic stage. The means of communication and the mobility of thepopulation now expose the individual to the observation of manypersons who have no other means of judging of his reputability thanthe display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able tomake while he is under their direct observation.
The modern organisation of industry works in the same directionalso by another line. The exigencies of the modern industrial systemfrequently place individuals and households in juxtaposition betweenwhom there is little contact in any other sense than that ofjuxtaposition. One's neighbours, mechanically speaking, often aresocially not one's neighbours, or even acquaintances; and still theirtransient good opinion has a high degree of utility. The onlypracticable means of impressing one's pecuniary ability on theseunsympathetic observers of one's everyday life is an unremittingdemonstration of ability to pay. In the modern community there isalso a more frequent attendance at large gatherings of people to whomone's everyday life is unknown; in such places as churches, theatres,ballrooms, hotels, parks, shops, and the like. In order to impressthese transient observers, and to retain one's self-complacency undertheir observation, the signature of one's pecuniary strength shouldbe written in characters which he who runs may read. It is evident,therefore, that the present trend of the development is in thedirection of heightening the utility of conspicuous consumption ascompared with leisure.
It is also noticeable that the serviceability of consumption as ameans of repute, as well as the insistence on it as an element ofdecency, is at its best in those portions of the community where thehuman contact of the individual is widest and the mobility of thepopulation is greatest. Conspicuous consumption claims a relativelylarger portion of the income of the urban than of the ruralpopulation, and the claim is also more imperative. The result isthat, in order to keep up a decent appearance, the former habituallylive hand-to-mouth to a greater extent than the latter. So it comes,for instance, that the American farmer and his wife and daughters arenotoriously less modish in their dress, as well as less urbane intheir manners, than the city artisan's family with an equal income.It is not that the city population is by nature much more eager forthe peculiar complacency that comes of a conspicuous consumption, norhas the rural population less regard for pecuniary decency. But theprovocation to this line of evidence, as well as its transienteffectiveness, are more decided in the city. This method is thereforemore readily resorted to, and in the struggle to outdo one anotherthe city population push their normal standard of conspicuousconsumption to a higher point, with the result that a relativelygreater expenditure in this direction is required to indicate a givendegree of pecuniary decency in the city. The requirement ofconformity to this higher conventional standard becomes mandatory.The standard of decency is higher, class for class, and thisrequirement of decent appearance must be lived up to on pain oflosing caste.
Consumption becomes a larger element in the standard of living inthe city than in the country. Among the country population its placeis to some extent taken by savings and home comforts known throughthe medium of neighbourhood gossip sufficiently to serve the likegeneral purpose of pecuniary repute. These home comforts and theleisure indulged in--where the indulgence is found--are of coursealso in great part to be classed as stems of conspicuous consumption;and much the same is to be said of the savings. The smaller amount ofthe savings laid by by the artisan class is no doubt due, in somemeasure, to the fact that in the case of the artisan the savings area less effective means of advertisement, relative to the environmentin which he is placed, than are the savings of the people living onfarms and in the small villages. Among the latter, everybody'saffairs, especially everybody's pecuniary status, are known toeverybody else. Considered by itself simply--taken in the firstdegree--this added provocation to which the artisan and the urbanlabouring classes are exposed may not very seriously decrease theamount of savings; but in its cumulative action, through raising thestandard of decent expenditure, its deterrent effect on the tendencyto save cannot but be very great.
But there are other standards of repute and other, more or lessimperative, canons of conduct, besides wealth and its manifestation,and some of these come in to accentuate or to qualify the broad,fundamental canon of conspicuous waste. Under the simple test ofeffectiveness for advertising, we should expect to find leisure andthe conspicuous consumption of goods dividing the field of pecuniaryemulation pretty evenly between them at the outset. Leisure mightthen be expected gradually to yield ground and tend to obsolescenceas the economic development goes forward, and the community increasesin size; while the conspicuous consumption of goods should graduallygain in importance, both absolutely and relatively, until it hadabsorbed all the available product, leaving nothing over beyond abare livelihood. But the actual course of development has beensomewhat different from this ideal scheme. Leisure held the firstplace at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above wastefulconsumption of goods, both as a direct exponent of wealth and as anelement in the standard of decency, during the quasi-peaceableculture. From that point onward, consumption has gained ground,until, at present, it unquestionably holds the primacy, though it isstill far from absorbing the entire margin of production above thesubsistence minimum.
Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure,whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obviousimplication that in order to effectually mend the consumer's goodfame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to bereputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from theconsumption of the bare necessaries of life, except by comparisonwith the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistenceminimum; and no standard of expenditure could result from such acomparison, except the most prosaic and unattractive level ofdecency. A standard of life would still be possible which shouldadmit of invidious comparison in other respects than that ofopulence; as, for instance, a comparison in various directions in themanifestation of moral, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic force.Comparison in all these directions is in vogue to-day; and thecomparison made in these respects is commonly so inextricably boundup with the pecuniary comparison as to be scarcely distinguishablefrom the latter. This is especially true as regards the currentrating of expressions of intellectual and aesthetic force orproficiency; so that we frequently interpret as aesthetic orintellectual a difference which in substance is pecuniary only.
The use of the term "waste" is in one respect an unfortunate one.As used in the speech of everyday life the word carries an undertoneof deprecation. It is here used for want of a better term that willadequately describe the same range of motives and of phenomena, andit is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying an illegitimateexpenditure of human products or of human life. In the view ofeconomic theory the expenditure in question is no more and no lesslegitimate than any other expenditure. It is here called "caste"because this expenditure does not serve human life or humanwell-being on the whole, not because it is waste or misdirection ofeffort or expenditure as viewed from the standpoint of the individualconsumer who chooses it. If he chooses it, that disposes of thequestion of its relative utility to him, as compared with other formsof consumption that would not be deprecated on account of theirwastefulness. Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses, orwhatever end he seeks in making his choice, has utility to him byvirtue of his preference. As seen from the point of view of theindividual consumer, the question of wastefulness does not arisewithin the scope of economic theory proper. The use of the word"waste" as a technical term, therefore, implies no deprecation of themotives or of the ends sought by the consumer under this canon ofconspicuous waste.
It is obviously not necessary that a given object of expenditureshould be exclusively wasteful in order to come in under the categoryof conspicuous waste. An article may be useful and wasteful both, andits utility to the consumer may be made up of use and waste in themost varying proportions. Consumable goods, and even productive goodsgenerally show the two elements in combination, as constituents oftheir utility; although, in a general way, the element of waste tendsto predominate in articles of consumption, while the contrary is trueof articles designed for productive use. Even in articles whichappear at first glance to serve for pure ostentation only, it isalways possible to detect the presence of some, at least ostensible,useful purpose; and on the other hand, even in special machinery andtools contrived for some particular industrial process, as well as inthe rudest appliances of human industry, the traces of conspicuouswaste, or at least of the habit of ostentation, usually becomeevident on a close scrutiny. It would be hazardous to assert that auseful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or ofany service, however obviously its prime purpose and chief element isconspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert ofany primarily useful product that the element of waste is in no wayconcerned in its value, immediately or remotely.
Back to the Syllabus