“[L]ive up to the conventional standard” vs. “outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves.”

November 5, 2009

Chapter Five of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), The Pecuniary Standard of Living, begins as follows:

For the great body of the people in any modern community, the proximate ground of expenditure in excess of what is required for physical comfort is not a conscious effort to excel in the expensiveness of their visible consumption, so much as it is a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency in the amount and grade of goods consumed. This desire is not guided by a rigidly invariable standard, which must be lived up to, and beyond which there is no incentive to go. The standard is flexible; and especially it is indefinitely extensible, if only time is allowed for habituation to any increase in pecuniary ability and for acquiring facility in the new and larger scale of expenditure that follows such an increase. It is much more difficult to recede from a scale of expenditure once adopted than it is to extend the accustomed scale in response to an accession of wealth. Many items of customary expenditure prove on analysis to be almost purely wasteful, and they are therefore honorific only, but after they have once been incorporated into the scale of decent consumption, and so have become an integral part of one’s scheme of life, it is quite as hard to give up these as it is to give up many items that conduce directly to one’s physical comfort, or even that may be necessary to life and health. That is to say, the conspicuously wasteful honorific expenditure that confers spiritual well-being may become more indispensable than much of that expenditure which ministers to the “lower” wants of physical well-being or sustenance only. 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, while in the latter it may involve a material deduction from the physical comforts of life.

But while retrogression is difficult, a fresh advance in conspicuous expenditure is relatively easy; indeed, it takes place almost as a matter of course. 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. A prompt response to the stimulus, on the other hand, is accepted as the normal effect. This suggests that the standard of expenditure which commonly guides our efforts is not the average, ordinary expenditure already achieved; it is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach, or to reach which requires some strain. The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves. Substantially the same proposition is expressed in the commonplace remark that each class envies and emulates the class next above it in the social scale, while it rarely compares itself with those below or with those who are considerably in advance. That is to say, in other words, our standard of decency in expenditure, as in other ends of emulation, is set by the usage of those next above us in reputability; until, in this way, especially in any community where class distinctions are somewhat vague, all canons of reputability and decency, and all standards of consumption, are traced back by insensible gradations to the usages and habits of thought of the highest social and pecuniary class—the wealthy leisure class.

In these paragraphs Veblen clearly states two possible reasons for people to engage in “expenditure in excess of what is required for physical comfort”:

  1. A “desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency in the amount and grade of goods consumed”, and,
  2. a desire to “outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves”.

Despite his explicit statement upfront that for most people it is the first mode that is dominant, Veblen’s discussion in the paragraphs above, as in the entire book, seems slanted toward the seconds mode of thinking. The conclusion “the standard of expenditure which commonly guides our efforts is not the average, ordinary expenditure already achieved; it is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach, or to reach which requires some strain”, for example, does not follow from the preceding discussion, which only implies that parity with peers is sought.

Even Veblen’s term “conspicuous consumption”, while it may be taken to cover consumption motivated by either reason, seems to be a better fit for the second motive. The first motive may be better described as “keeping up”. To make things clear, it is useful to refer to the second motive as “self-aggrandization”.

Veblen seems intent on glossing over the fact that the two reasons he suggest for excess consumption present very different outlooks by the consumer. Trying to make sure that one is as respected as others is very different from trying to make sure one enjoys more respect than most. The first objective can be realized by all members of society at the same time, allowing a stable, struggle-free group, while the second can only be achieved by a minority at any time, implying a permanent state of widespread frustration and possibly a never-ending internecine strife (when elite-membership is fluid).

A society that is made mostly of people that are trying to keep up may still be drawn toward over-consumption by a process of ratcheting, such as the one Veblen describes in the opening paragraph above, a process that is powered by a minority of self-aggrandizers. The majority in such a society may realistically hope, however, to arrange matters in such a way as to stop or reverse the ratcheting. A society which is made up mostly of self-aggrandizers, on the other hand, will probably find it very difficult to quell the constant struggle for dominance.

The distinction between these modes of thinking is a central theme in Christopher Boehm’s book, Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior (1999). Boehm claims that human bands developed an egalitarian ethos in which the peers in the band (all adult males, usually) cooperate to dominate any individual who tries to achieve a position of superiority within the groups. He calls this situation “reversed hierarchy”1.

As for the proportion of aggrandizers vs. keep-up-ers in the U.S., an opinion poll regarding the ambition for fame seems relevant: A 1998 Harris Poll asked a nationwide sample of Americans the question “would you like to be famous, that is, popular, well-known, or widely recognized for your accomplishments, activities, abilities, expertise, or opinions?”, to which 30% answered “yes” and 69% answered “no”. Veblen’s opening assertion that most people wish to attain an accepted standard of decency rather than to be recognized as outstanding is apparently justified.

[1] The notion of reversed hierarchy is quite close to the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as described by Lenin in “State and Revolution” (1917) in the section “The Transition from Capitalism to Communism”:

We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this: this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilized people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted. And, secondly, we know that the fundamental social cause of excesses, which consist in the violation of the rules of social intercourse, is the exploitation of the people, their want and their poverty.

Reversed hierarchy as a simple, direct mechanism of observation and prompt corrective reaction, however, is believable when it is postulated to be working within an intimate group but is quite incredible in the context of a nation or any organization that has more than a few dozen, or at most a few hundred members. Even within the intimate group the machination may be much more complex than Lenin makes them out to be.


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