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The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen - 1899

Chapter IV

Conspicuous Consumption
In what has been said of the evolution of the vicarious
leisure class and its differentiation from the general body of
the working classes, reference has been made to a further
division of labour, -- that between the different servant
classes. One portion of the servant class, chiefly those persons
whose occupation is vicarious leisure, come to undertake a new,
subsidiary range of duties -- the vicarious consumption of goods.
The most obvious form in which this consumption occurs is seen in
the wearing of liveries and the occupation of spacious servants'
quarters. Another, scarcely less obtrusive or less effective form
of vicarious consumption, and a much more widely prevalent one,
is the consumption of food, clothing, dwelling, and furniture by
the lady and the rest of the domestic establishment.
But already at a point in economic evolution far antedating
the emergence of the lady, specialised consumption of goods as an
evidence of pecuniary strength had begun to work out in a more or
less elaborate system. The beginning of a differentiation in
consumption even antedates the appearance of anything that can
fairly be called pecuniary strength. It is traceable back to the
initial phase of predatory culture, and there is even a
suggestion that an incipient differentiation in this respect lies
back of the beginnings of the predatory life. This most primitive
differentiation in the consumption of goods is like the later
differentiation with which we are all so intimately familiar, in
that it is largely of a ceremonial character, but unlike the
latter it does not rest on a difference in accumulated wealth.
The utility of consumption as an evidence of wealth is to be
classed as a derivative growth. It is an adaption to a new end,
by a selective process, of a distinction previously existing and
well established in men's habits of thought.
In the earlier phases of the predatory culture the only
economic differentiation is a broad distinction between an
honourable superior class made up of the able-bodied men on the
one side, and a base inferior class of labouring women on the
other. According to the ideal scheme of life in force at the time
it is the office of the men to consume what the women produce.
Such consumption as falls to the women is merely incidental to
their work; it is a means to their continued labour, and not a
consumption directed to their own comfort and fulness of life.
Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a
mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity; secondarily it
becomes substantially honourable to itself, especially the
consumption of the more desirable things. The consumption of
choice articles of food, and frequently also of rare articles of
adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and if there
is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu holds also for them.
With a further advance in culture this tabu may change into
simple custom of a more or less rigorous character; but whatever
be the theoretical basis of the distinction which is maintained,
whether it be a tabu or a larger conventionality, the features of
the conventional scheme of consumption do not change easily. When
the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its
fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general
principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base,
industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to
their subsistence. In the nature of things, luxuries and the
comforts of life belong to the leisure class. Under the tabu,
certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are
strictly reserved for the use of the superior class.
The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen
in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these
articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and
honorific. Therefore the base classes, primarily the women,
practice an enforced continence with respect to these stimulants,
except in countries where they are obtainable at a very low cost.
From archaic times down through all the length of the patriarchal
regime it has been the office of the women to prepare and
administer these luxuries, and it has been the perquisite of the
men of gentle birth and breeding to consume them. Drunkenness and
the other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants
therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a
mark, at the second remove, of the superior status of those who
are able to afford the indulgence. Infirmities induced by
over-indulgence are among some peoples freely recognised as manly
attributes. It has even happened that the name for certain
diseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin has
passed into everyday speech as a synonym for "noble" or "gentle".
It is only at a relatively early stage of culture that the
symptoms of expensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks
of a superior status, and so tend to become virtues and command
the deference of the community; but the reputability that
attaches to certain expensive vices long retains so much of its
force as to appreciably lesson the disapprobation visited upon
the men of the wealthy or noble class for any excessive
indulgence. The same invidious distinction adds force to the
current disapproval of any indulgence of this kind on the part of
women, minors, and inferiors. This invidious traditional
distinction has not lost its force even among the more advanced
peoples of today. Where the example set by the leisure class
retains its imperative force in the regulation of the
conventionalities, it is observable that the women still in great
measure practise the same traditional continence with regard to
This characterisation of the greater continence in the use
of stimulants practised by the women of the reputable classes may
seem an excessive refinement of logic at the expense of common
sense. But facts within easy reach of any one who cares to know
them go to say that the greater abstinence of women is in some
part due to an imperative conventionality; and this
conventionality is, in a general way, strongest where the
patriarchal tradition -- the tradition that the woman is a
chattel -- has retained its hold in greatest vigour. In a sense
which has been greatly qualified in scope and rigour, but which
has by no means lost its meaning even yet, this tradition says
that the woman, being a chattel, should consume only what is
necessary to her sustenance, -- except so far as her further
consumption contributes to the comfort or the good repute of her
master. The consumption of luxuries, in the true sense, is a
consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and
is, therefore, a mark of the master. Any such consumption by
others can take place only on a basis of sufferance. In
communities where the popular habits of thought have been
profoundly shaped by the patriarchal tradition we may
accordingly look for survivals of the tabu on luxuries at least
to the extent of a conventional deprecation of their use by the
unfree and dependent class. This is more particularly true as
regards certain luxuries, the use of which by the dependent class
would detract sensibly from the comfort or pleasure of their
masters, or which are held to be of doubtful legitimacy on other
grounds. In the apprehension of the great conservative middle
class of Western civilisation the use of these various stimulants
is obnoxious to at least one, if not both, of these objections;
and it is a fact too significant to be passed over that it is
precisely among these middle classes of the Germanic culture,
with their strong surviving sense of the patriarchal proprieties,
that the women are to the greatest extent subject to a qualified
tabu on narcotics and alcoholic beverages. With many
qualifications -- with more qualifications as the patriarchal
tradition has gradually weakened -- the general rule is felt to
be right and binding that women should consume only for the
benefit of their masters. The objection of course presents itself
that expenditure on women's dress and household paraphernalia is
an obvious exception to this rule; but it will appear in the
sequel that this exception is much more obvious than substantial.
During the earlier stages of economic development,
consumption of goods without stint, especially consumption of the
better grades of goods, -- ideally all consumption in excess of
the subsistence minimum, -- pertains normally to the leisure
class. This restriction tends to disappear, at least formally,
after the later peaceable stage has been reached, with private
ownership of goods and an industrial system based on wage labour
or on the petty household economy. But during the earlier
quasiªpeaceable stage, when so many of the traditions through
which the institution of a leisure class has affected the
economic life of later times were taking form and consistency,
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 an
aberrant form, sure to be eliminated sooner or later in the
further course of development.
The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only
consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for
subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also
undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods
consumed. He consumes 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 gradual amelioration which takes place in the
articles of his consumption, the motive principle and proximate
aim of innovation is no doubt the higher efficiency of the
improved and more elaborate products for personal comfort and
well-being. But that does not remain the sole purpose of their
consumption. The canon of reputability is at hand and seizes upon
such innovations as are, according to its standard, fit to
survive. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is
an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the
failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of
inferiority and demerit.
This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative
excellence in eating, drinking, etc. presently affects not only
the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual
activity of the gentleman of leisure. He is no longer simply the
successful, aggressive male, -- the man of strength, resource,
and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also
cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to
discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble
in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable
viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and
trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games,
dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of aesthetic faculty
requires time and application, and the demands made upon the
gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of
leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business
of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a
becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the
gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods,
there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in
a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due
form. Hence arise good manners in the way pointed out in an
earlier chapter. High-bred manners and ways of living are items
of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous
Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of
reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates
on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to
sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid
of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting
to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and
entertainments. Presents and feasts had probably another origin
than that of naive ostentation, but they required their utility
for this purpose very early, and they have retained that
character to the present; so that their utility in this respect
has now long been the substantial ground on which these usages
rest. Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball,
are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. The competitor with
whom the entertainer wishes to institute a comparison is, by this
method, made to serve as a means to the end. He consumes
vicariously for his host at the same time that he is witness to
the consumption of that excess of good things which his host is
unable to dispose of single-handed, and he is also made to
witness his host's facility in etiquette.
In the giving of costly entertainments other motives, of
more genial kind, are of course also present. The custom of
festive gatherings probably originated in motives of conviviality
and religion; these motives are also present in the later
development, but they do not continue to be the sole motives. The
latter-day leisure-class festivities and entertainments may
continue in some slight degree to serve the religious need and in
a higher degree the needs of recreation and conviviality, but
they also serve an invidious purpose; and they serve it none the
less effectually for having a colorable non-invidious ground in
these more avowable motives. But the economic effect of these
social amenities is not therefore lessened, either in the
vicarious consumption of goods or in the exhibition of difficult
and costly achievements in etiquette.
As wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in
function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within
the class. There is a more or less elaborate system of rank and
grades. This differentiation is furthered by the inheritance of
wealth and the consequent inheritance of gentility. With the
inheritance of gentility goes the inheritance of obligatory
leisure; and gentility of a sufficient potency to entail a life
of leisure may be inherited without the complement of wealth
required to maintain a dignified leisure. Gentle blood may be
transmitted without goods enough to afford a reputably free
consumption at one's ease. Hence results a class of impecunious
gentlemen of leisure, incidentally referred to already. These
half-caste gentlemen of leisure fall into a system of
hierarchical gradations. Those who stand near the higher and the
highest grades of the wealthy leisure class, in point of birth,
or in point of wealth, or both, outrank the remoter-born and the
pecuniarily weaker. These lower grades, especially the
impecunious, or marginal, gentlemen of leisure, affiliate
themselves by a system of dependence or fealty to the great ones;
by so doing they gain an increment of repute, or of the means
with which to lead a life of leisure, from their patron. They
become his courtiers or retainers, servants; and being fed and
countenanced by their patron they are indices of his rank and
vicarious consumer of his superfluous wealth. Many of these
affiliated gentlemen of leisure are at the same time lesser men
of substance in their own right; so that some of them are
scarcely at all, others only partially, to be rated as vicarious
consumers. So many of them, however, as make up the retainer and
hangers-on of the patron may be classed as vicarious consumer
without qualification. Many of these again, and also many of the
other aristocracy of less degree, have in turn attached to their
persons a more or less comprehensive group of vicarious consumer
in the persons of their wives and children, their servants,
retainers, etc.
Throughout this graduated scheme of vicarious leisure and
vicarious consumption the rule holds that these offices must be
performed in some such manner, or under some such circumstance or
insignia, as shall point plainly to the master to whom this
leisure or consumption pertains, and to whom therefore the
resulting increment of good repute of right inures. The
consumption and leisure executed by these persons for their
master or patron represents an investment on his part with a view
to an increase of good fame. As regards feasts and largesses this
is obvious enough, and the imputation of repute to the host or
patron here takes place immediately, on the ground of common
notoriety . Where leisure and consumption is performed
vicariously by henchmen and retainers, imputation of the
resulting repute to the patron is effected by their residing near
his person so that it may be plain to all men from what source
they draw. As the group whose good esteem is to be secured in
this way grows larger, more patent means are required to indicate
the imputation of merit for the leisure performed, and to this
end uniforms, badges, and liveries come into vogue. The wearing
of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of
dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real
or ostensible. The wearers of uniforms and liveries may be
roughly divided into two classes-the free and the servile, or the
noble and the ignoble. The services performed by them are
likewise divisible into noble and ignoble. Of course the
distinction is not observed with strict consistency in practice;
the less debasing of the base services and the less honorific of
the noble functions are not infrequently merged in the same
person. But the general distinction is not on that account to be
overlooked. What may add some perplexity is the fact that this
fundamental distinction between noble and ignoble, which rests on
the nature of the ostensible service performed, is traversed by a
secondary distinction into honorific and humiliating, resting on
the rank of the person for whom the service is performed or whose
livery is worn. So, those offices which are by right the proper
employment of the leisure class are noble; such as government,
fighting, hunting, the care of arms and accoutrements, and the
like -- in short, those which may be classed as ostensibly
predatory employments. On the other hand, those employments which
properly fall to the industrious class are ignoble; such as
handicraft or other productive labor, menial services and the
like. But a base service performed for a person of very high
degree may become a very honorific office; as for instance the
office of a Maid of Honor or of a Lady in Waiting to the Queen,
or the King's Master of the Horse or his Keeper of the Hounds.
The two offices last named suggest a principle of some general
bearing. Whenever, as in these cases, the menial service in
question has to do directly with the primary leisure employments
of fighting and hunting, it easily acquires a reflected honorific
character. In this way great honor may come to attach to an
employment which in its own nature belongs to the baser sort.
In the later development of peaceable industry, the usage of
employing an idle corps of uniformed men-at-arms gradually
lapses. Vicarious consumption by dependents bearing the insignia
of their patron or master narrows down to a corps of liveried
menials. In a heightened degree, therefore, the livery comes to
be a badge of servitude, or rather servility. Something of a
honorific character always attached to the livery of the armed
retainer, but this honorific character disappears when the livery
becomes the exclusive badge of the menial. The livery becomes
obnoxious to nearly all who are required to wear it. We are yet
so little removed from a state of effective slavery as still to
be fully sensitive to the sting of any imputation of servility.
This antipathy asserts itself even in the case of the liveries or
uniforms which some corporations prescribe as the distinctive
dress of their employees. In this country the aversion even goes
the length of discrediting -- in a mild and uncertain way --
those government employments, military and civil, which require
the wearing of a livery or uniform.
With the disappearance of servitude, the number of vicarious
consumers attached to any one gentleman tends, on the whole, to
decrease. The like is of course true, and perhaps in a still
higher degree, of the number of dependents who perform vicarious
leisure for him. In a general way, though not wholly nor
consistently, these two groups coincide. The dependent who was
first delegated for these duties was the wife, or the chief wife;
and, as would be expected, in the later development of the
institution, when the number of persons by whom these duties are
customarily performed gradually narrows, the wife remains the
last. In the higher grades of society a large volume of both
these kinds of service is required; and here the wife is of
course still assisted in the work by a more or less numerous
corps of menials. But as we descend the social scale, the point
is presently reached where the duties of vicarious leisure and
consumption devolve upon the wife alone. In the communities of
the Western culture, this point is at present found among the
lower middle class.
And here occurs a curious inversion. It is a fact of common
observance that in this lower middle class there is no pretense
of leisure on the part of the head of the household. Through
force of circumstances it has fallen into disuse. But the
middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious
leisure, for the good name of the household and its master. In
descending the social scale in any modern industrial community,
the primary fact-the conspicuous leisure of the master of the
household-disappears at a relatively high point. The head of the
middle-class household has been reduced by economic circumstances
to turn his hand to gaining a livelihood by occupations which
often partake largely of the character of industry, as in the
case of the ordinary business man of today. But the derivative
fact-the vicarious leisure and consumption rendered by the wife,
and the auxiliary vicarious performance of leisure by
menials-remains in vogue as a conventionality which the demands
of reputability will not suffer to be slighted. It is by no means
an uncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with
the utmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form
render for him that degree of vicarious leisure which the common
sense of the time demands.
The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of
course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It
almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or
household duties or social amenities, which prove on analysis to
serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not
occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of
substantial use. As has already been noticed under the head of
manners, the greater part of the customary round of domestic
cares to which the middle-class housewife gives her time and
effort is of this character. Not that the results of her
attention to household matters, of a decorative and mundificatory
character, are not pleasing to the sense of men trained in
middle-class proprieties; but the taste to which these effects of
household adornment and tidiness appeal is a taste which has been
formed under the selective guidance of a canon of propriety that
demands just these evidences of wasted effort. The effects are
pleasing to us chiefly because we have been taught to find them
pleasing. There goes into these domestic duties much solicitude
for a proper combination of form and color, and for other ends
that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense of the
term; and it is not denied that effects having some substantial
aesthetic value are sometimes attained. Pretty much all that is
here insisted on is that, as regards these amenities of life, the
housewife's efforts are under the guidance of traditions that
have been shaped by the law of conspicuously wasteful expenditure
of time and substance. If beauty or comfort is achieved-and it is
a more or less fortuitous circumstance if they are-they must be
achieved by means and methods that commend themselves to the
great economic law of wasted effort. The more reputable,
"presentable" portion of middle-class household paraphernalia
are, on the one hand, items of conspicuous consumption, and on
the other hand, apparatus for putting in evidence the vicarious
leisure rendered by the housewife.
The requirement of vicarious consumption at the hands of the
wife continues in force even at a lower point in the pecuniary
scale than the requirement of vicarious leisure. At a point below
which little if any pretense of wasted effort, in ceremonial
cleanness and the like, is observable, and where there is
assuredly no conscious attempt at ostensible leisure, decency
still requires the wife to consume some goods conspicuously for
the reputability of the household and its head. So that, as the
latter-day outcome of this evolution of an archaic institution,
the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the
man, both in fact and in theory -- the producer of goods for him
to consume -- has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which
he produces. But she still quite unmistakably remains his chattel
in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and
consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant.
This vicarious consumption practiced by the household of the
middle and lower classes can not be counted as a direct
expression of the leisure-class scheme of life, since the
household of this pecuniary grade does not belong within the
leisure class. It is rather that the leisure-class scheme of life
here comes to an expression at the second remove. The leisure
class stands at the head of the social structure in point of
reputability; and its manner of life and its standards of worth
therefore afford the norm of reputability for the community. The
observance of these standards, in some degree of approximation,
becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale. In modern
civilized communities the lines of demarcation between social
classes have grown vague and transient, and wherever this happens
the norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its
coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the
social structure to the lowest strata. The result is that the
members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the
scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend
their energies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting
their good name and their self-respect in case of failure, they
must conform to the accepted code, at least in appearance.
The basis on which good repute in any highly organized
industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and
the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or
retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption
of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far
down the scale as it remains possible; and in the lower strata in
which the two methods are employed, both offices are in great
part delegated to the wife and children of the household. Lower
still, where any degree of leisure, even ostensible, has become
impracticable for the wife, the conspicuous consumption of goods
remains and is carried on by the wife and children. The man of
the household also can do something in this direction, and
indeed, he commonly does; but with a still lower descent into the
levels of indigence -- along the margin of the slums -- the man,
and presently also the children, virtually cease to consume
valuable goods for appearances, and the woman remains virtually
the sole exponent of the household's pecuniary decency. No class
of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all
customary conspicuous consumption. The last items of this
category of consumption are not given up except under stresS of
the direst necessity. Very much of squalor and discomfort will be
endured before the last trinket or the last pretense of pecuniary
decency is put away. There is no class and no country that has
yielded so abjectly before the pressure of physical want as to
deny themselves all gratification of this higher or spiritual
From the foregoing survey of the growth of conspicuous
leisure and consumption, it appears that the utility of both
alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of
waste that is common to both. In the one case it is a waste of
time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods. Both are
methods of demonstrating the possession of wealth, and the two
are conventionally accepted as equivalents. The choice between
them is a question of advertising expediency simply, except so
far as it may be affected by other standards of propriety,
springing from a different source. On grounds of expediency the
preference may be given to the one or the other at different
stages of the economic development. The question is, which of the
two methods will most effectively reach the persons whose
convictions it is desired to affect. Usage has answered this
question in different ways under different circumstances.
So long as the community or social group is small enough and
compact enough to be effectually reached by common notoriety
alone that is to say, so long as the human environment to which
the individual is required to adapt himself in respect of
reputability is comprised within his sphere of personal
acquaintance and neighborhood gossip -- so long the one method is
about as effective as the other. Each will therefore serve about
equally well during the earlier stages of social growth. But when
the differentiation has gone farther and it becomes necessary to
reach a wider human environment, consumption begins to hold over
leisure as an ordinary means of decency. This is especially true
during the later, peaceable economic stage. The means of
communication and the mobility of the population now expose the
individual to the observation of many persons who have no other
means of judging of his reputability than the display of goods
(and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is
under their direct observation.
The modern organization of industry works in the same
direction also by another line. The exigencies of the modern
industrial system frequently place individuals and households in
juxtaposition between whom there is little contact in any other
sense than that of juxtaposition. One's neighbors, mechanically
speaking, often are socially not one's neighbors, or even
acquaintances; and still their transient good opinion has a high
degree of utility. 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.
In the modern community there is also a more frequent attendance
at large gatherings of people to whom one's everyday life is
unknown; in such places as churches, theaters, ballrooms, hotels,
parks, shops, and the like. In order to impress these transient
observers, and to retain one's self-complacency under their
observation, the signature of one's pecuniary strength should be
written in characters which he who runs may read. It is evident,
therefore, that the present trend of the development is in the
direction of heightening the utility of conspicuous consumption
as compared with leisure.
It is also noticeable that the serviceability of consumption
as a means of repute, as well as the insistence on it as an
element of decency, is at its best in those portions of the
community where the human contact of the individual is widest and
the mobility of the population is greatest. Conspicuous
consumption claims a relatively larger portion of the income of
the urban than of the rural population, and the claim is also
more imperative. The result is that, in order to keep up a decent
appearance, the former habitually live hand-to-mouth to a greater
extent than the latter. So it comes, for instance, that the
American farmer and his wife and daughters are notoriously less
modish in their dress, as well as less urbane in their manners,
than the city artisan's family with an equal income. It is not
that the city population is by nature much more eager for the
peculiar complacency that comes of a conspicuous consumption, nor
has the rural population less regard for pecuniary decency. But
the provocation to this line of evidence, as well as its
transient effectiveness, is more decided in the city. This method
is therefore more readily resorted to, and in the struggle to
outdo one another the city population push their normal standard
of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, with the result
that a relatively greater expenditure in this direction is
required to indicate a given degree of pecuniary decency in the
city. The requirement of conformity to this higher conventional
standard becomes mandatory. The standard of decency is higher,
class for class, and this requirement of decent appearance must
be lived up to on pain of losing caste.
Consumption becomes a larger element in the standard of
living in the city than in the country. Among the country
population its place is to some extent taken by savings and home
comforts known through the medium of neighborhood gossip
sufficiently to serve the like general purpose of Pecuniary
repute. These home comforts and the leisure indulged in -- where
the indulgence is found -- are of course also in great part to be
classed as items of conspicuous consumption; and much the same is
to be said of the savings. The smaller amount of the savings laid
by by the artisan class is no doubt due, in some measure, to the
fact that in the case of the artisan the savings are a less
effective means of advertisement, relative to the environment in
which he is placed, than are the savings of the people living on
farms and in the small villages. Among the latter, everybody's
affairs, especially everybody's pecuniary status, are known to
everybody else. Considered by itself simply -- taken in the first
degree -- this added provocation to which the artisan and the
urban laboring classes are exposed may not very seriously
decrease the amount of savings; but in its cumulative action,
through raising the standard of decent expenditure, its deterrent
effect on the tendency to save cannot but be very great.
A felicitous illustration of the manner in which this canon
of reputability works out its results is seen in the practice of
dram-drinking, "treating," and smoking in public places, which is
customary among the laborers and handicraftsmen of the towns, and
among the lower middle class of the urban population generally
Journeymen printers may be named as a class among whom this form
of conspicuous consumption has a great vogue, and among whom it
carries with it certain well-marked consequences that are often
deprecated. The peculiar habits of the class in this respect are
commonly set down to some kind of an ill-defined moral deficiency
with which this class is credited, or to a morally deleterious
influence which their occupation is supposed to exert, in some
unascertainable way, upon the men employed in it. The state of
the case for the men who work in the composition and press rooms
of the common run of printing-houses may be summed up as follows.
Skill acquired in any printing-house or any city is easily turned
to account in almost any other house or city; that is to say, the
inertia due to special training is slight. Also, this occupation
requires more than the average of intelligence and general
information, and the men employed in it are therefore ordinarily
more ready than many others to take advantage of any slight
variation in the demand for their labor from one place to
another. The inertia due to the home feeling is consequently also
slight. At the same time the wages in the trade are high enough
to make movement from place to place relatively easy. The result
is a great mobility of the labor employed in printing; perhaps
greater than in any other equally well-defined and considerable
body of workmen. These men are constantly thrown in contact with
new groups of acquaintances, with whom the relations established
are transient or ephemeral, but whose good opinion is valued none
the less for the time being. The human proclivity to ostentation,
reenforced by sentiments of goodfellowship, leads them to spend
freely in those directions which will best serve these needs.
Here as elsewhere prescription seizes upon the custom as soon as
it gains a vogue, and incorporates it in the accredited standard
of decency. The next step is to make this standard of decency the
point of departure for a new move in advance in the same
direction -- for there is no merit in simple spiritless
conformity to a standard of dissipation that is lived up to as a
matter of course by everyone in the trade.
The greater prevalence of dissipation among printers than
among the average of workmen is accordingly attributable, at
least in some measure, to the greater ease of movement and the
more transient character of acquaintance and human contact in
this trade. But the substantial ground of this high requirement
in dissipation is in the last analysis no other than that same
propensity for a manifestation of dominance and pecuniary decency
which makes the French peasant-proprietor parsimonious and
frugal, and induces the American millionaire to found colleges,
hospitals and museums. 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 for a population situated as the artisan and laboring
classes of the cities are at present, however high their wages or
their income might be.
But there are other standards of repute and other, more or
less imperative, 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 of effectiveness for advertising, we should
expect to find leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods
dividing the field of pecuniary emulation pretty evenly between
them at the outset. Leisure might then be expected gradually to
yield ground and tend to obsolescence as the economic development
goes forward, and the community increases in size; while the
conspicuous consumption of goods should gradually gain in
importance, both absolutely and relatively, until it had absorbed
all the available product, leaving nothing over beyond a bare
livelihood. But the actual course of development has been
somewhat different from this ideal scheme. Leisure held the first
place at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above
wasteful consumption of goods, both as a direct exponent of
wealth and as an element in the standard of decency , during the
quasi-peaceable culture. From that point onward, consumption has
gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds the
primacy, though it is still far from absorbing the entire margin
of production above the subsistence minimum.
The early ascendency of leisure as a means of reputability
is traceable to the archaic distinction between noble and ignoble
employments. Leisure is honorable and becomes imperative partly
because it shows exemption from ignoble labor. The archaic
differentiation into noble and ignoble classes is based on an
invidious distinction between employments as honorific or
debasing; and this traditional distinction grows into an
imperative canon of decency during the early quasi-peaceable
stage. Its ascendency is furthered by the fact that leisure is
still fully as effective an evidence of wealth as consumption.
Indeed, so effective is it in the relatively small and stable
human environment to which the individual is exposed at that
cultural stage, that, with the aid of the archaic tradition which
deprecates all productive labor, it gives rise to a large
impecunious leisure class, and it even tends to limit the
production of the community's industry to the subsistence
minimum. This extreme inhibition of industry is avoided because
slave labor, working under a compulsion more vigorous than that
of reputability, is forced to turn out a product in excess of the
subsistence minimum of the working class. The subsequent relative
decline in the use of conspicuous leisure as a basis of repute is
due partly to an increasing relative effectiveness of consumption
as an evidence of wealth; but in part it is traceable to another
force, alien, and in some degree antagonistic, to the usage of
conspicuous waste.
This alien factor is the instinct of workmanship. Other
circumstances permitting, that instinct disposes men to look with
favor upon productive efficiency and on whatever is of human use.
It disposes them to depreCate waste of substance or effort. The
instinct of workmanship is present in all men, and asserts itself
even under very adverse circumstances. So that however wasteful a
given expenditure may be in reality, it must at least have some
colorable excuse in the way of an ostensible purpose. The manner
in which, under special circumstances, the instinct eventuates in
a taste for exploit and an invidious discrimination between noble
and ignoble classes has been indicated in an earlier chapter. In
so far as it comes into conflict with the law of conspicuous
waste, the instinct of workmanship expresses itself not so much
in insistence on substantial usefulness as in an abiding sense of
the odiousness and aesthetic impossibility of what is obviously
futile. Being of the nature of an instinctive affection, its
guidance touches chiefly and immediately the obvious and apparent
violations of its requirements. It is only less promptly and with
less constraining force that it reaches such substantial
violations of its requirements as are appreciated only upon
So long as all labor continues to be performed exclusively
or usually by slaves, the baseness of all productive effort is
too constantly and deterrently present in the mind of men to
allow the instinct of workmanship seriously to take effect in the
direction of industrial usefulness; but when the quasi-peaceable
stage (with slavery and status) passes into the peaceable stage
of industry (with wage labor and cash payment) the instinct comes
more effectively into play. It then begins aggressively to shape
men's views of what is meritorious, and asserts itself at least
as an auxiliary canon of self-complacency. All extraneous
considerations apart, those persons (adult) are but a vanishing
minority today who harbor no inclination to the accomplishment of
some end, or who are not impelled of their own motion to shape
some object or fact or relation for human use. The propensity may
in large measure be overborne by the more immediately
constraining incentive to a reputable leisure and an avoidance of
indecorous usefulness, and it may therefore work itself out in
make-believe only; as for instance in "social duties," and in
quasi-artistic or quasi-scholarly accomplishments, in the care
and decoration of the house, in sewing-circle activity or dress
reform, in proficiency at dress, cards, yachting, golf, and
various sports. But the fact that it may under stress of
circumstances eventuate in inanities no more disproves the
presence of the instinct than the reality of the brooding
instinct is disproved by inducing a hen to sit on a nestful of
china eggs.
This latter-day uneasy reaching-out for some form of
purposeful activity that shall at the same time not be
indecorously productive of either individual or collective gain
marks a difference of attitude between the modern leisure class
and that of the quasi-peaceable stage. At the earlier stage, as
was said above, the all-dominating institution of slavery and
status acted resistlessly to discountenance exertion directed to
other than naively predatory ends. It was still possible to find
some habitual employment for the inclination to action in the way
of forcible aggression or repression directed against hostile
groups or against the subject classes within the group; and this
sewed to relieve the pressure and draw off the energy of the
leisure class without a resort to actually useful, or even
ostensibly useful employments. The practice of hunting also sewed
the same purpose in some degree. When the community developed
into a peaceful industrial organization, and when fuller
occupation of the land had reduced the opportunities for the hunt
to an inconsiderable residue, the pressure of energy seeking
purposeful employment was left to find an outlet in some other
direction. The ignominy which attaches to useful effort also
entered upon a less acute phase with the disappearance of
compulsory labor; and the instinct of workmanship then came to
assert itself with more persistence and consistency.
The line of least resistance has changed in some measure,
and the energy which formerly found a vent in predatory activity,
now in part takes the direction of some ostensibly useful end.
Ostensibly purposeless leisure has come to be deprecated,
especially among that large portion of the leisure class whose
plebeian origin acts to set them at variance with the tradition
of the otium cum dignitate. But that canon of reputability which
discountenances all employment that is of the nature of
productive effort is still at hand, and will permit nothing
beyond the most transient vogue to any employment that is
substantially useful or productive. The consequence is that a
change has been wrought in the conspicuous leisure practiced by
the leisure class; not so much in substance as in form. A
reconciliation between the two conflicting requirements is
effected by a resort to make-believe. Many and intricate polite
observances and social duties of a ceremonial nature are
developed; many organizations are founded, with some specious
object of amelioration embodied in their official style and
title; there is much coming and going, and a deal of talk, to the
end that the talkers may not have occasion to reflect on what is
the effectual economic value of their traffic. And along with the
make-believe of purposeful employment, and woven inextricably
into its texture, there is commonly, if not invariably, a more or
less appreciable element of purposeful effort directed to some
serious end.
In the narrower sphere of vicarious leisure a similar change
has gone forward. Instead of simply passing her time in visible
idleness, as in the best days of the patriarchal regime, the
housewife of the advanced peaceable stage applies herself
assiduously to household cares. The salient features of this
development of domestic service have already been indicated.
Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure,
whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious
implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer's good
fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be
reputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from the
consumption of the bare necessaries of life, except by comparison
with the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistence
minimum; and no standard of expenditure could result from such a
comparison, except the most prosaic and unattractive level of
decency. A standard of life would still be possible which should
admit of invidious comparison in other respects than that of
opulence; as, for instance, a comparison in various directions in
the manifestation of moral, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic
force. Comparison in all these directions is in vogue today; and
the comparison made in these respects is commonly so inextricably
bound up with the pecuniary comparison as to be scarcely
distinguishable from the latter. This is especially true as
regards the current rating of expressions of intellectual and
aesthetic force or proficiency' so that we frequently interpret
as aesthetic or intellectual 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
undertone of deprecation. It is here used for want of a better
term that will adequately describe the same range of motives and
of phenomena, and it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as
implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of
human life. In the view of economic theory the expenditure in
question is no more and no less legitimate than any other
expenditure. It is here called "waste" because this expenditure
does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole, not
because it is waste or misdirection of effort or expenditure as
viewed from the standpoint of the individual consumer who chooses
it. If he chooses it, that disposes of the question of its
relative utility to him, as compared with other forms of
consumption that would not be deprecated on account of their
wastefulness. Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses,
or whatever end he seeks in making his choice, has utility to him
by virtue of his preference. As seen from the point of view of
the individual consumer, the question of wastefulness does not
arise within the scope of economic theory proper. The use of the
word "waste" as a technical term, therefore, implies no
deprecation of the motives or of the ends sought by the consumer
under this canon of conspicuous waste.
But it is, on other grounds, worth noting that the term
"waste" in the language of everyday life implies deprecation of
what is characterized as wasteful. This common-sense implication
is itself an outcropping of the instinct of workmanship. The
popular reprobation of waste goes to say that in order to be at
peace with himself the common man must be able to see in any and
all human effort and human enjoyment an enhancement of life and
well-being on the whole. In order to meet with unqualified
approval, any economic fact must approve itself under the test of
impersonal usefulness-usefulness as seen from the point of view
of the generically human. Relative or competitive advantage of
one individual in comparison with another does not satisfy the
economic conscience, and therefore competitive expenditure has
not the approval of this conscience.
In strict accuracy nothing should be included under the head
of conspicuous waste but such expenditure as is incurred on the
ground of an invidious pecuniary comparison. But in order to
bring any given item or element in under this head it is not
necessary that it should be recognized as waste in this sense by
the person incurring the expenditure. It frequently happens that
an element of the standard of living which set out with being
primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of
the consumer, a necessary of life; and it may in this way become
as indispensable as any other item of the consumer's habitual
expenditure. As items which sometimes fall under this head, and
are therefore available as illustrations of the manner in which
this principle applies, may be cited carpets and tapestries,
silver table service, waiter's services, silk hats, starched
linen, many articles of jewelry and of dress. The
indispensability of these things after the habit and the
convention have been formed, however, has little to say in the
classification of expenditures as waste or not waste in the
technical meaning of the word. The test to which all expenditure
must be brought in an attempt to decide that point is the
questiOn whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the
whole-whether it furthers the life process taken impersonally.
For this is the basis of award of the instinct of workmanship,
and that instinct is the court of final appeal in any question of
economic truth or adequacy. It is a question as to the award
rendered by a dispassionate common sense. The question is,
therefore, not whether, under the existing circumstances of
individual habit and social custom, a given expenditure conduces
to the particular consumer's gratification or peace of mind; but
whether, aside from acquired tastes and from the canons of usage
and conventional decency, its result is a net gain in comfort or
in the fullness of life. Customary expenditure must be classed
under the head of waste in so far as the custom on which it rests
is traceable to the habit of making an invidious pecuniary
comparison-in so far as it is conceived that it could not have
become customary and prescriptive without the backing of this
principle of pecuniary reputability or relative economic success.
It is obviously not necessary that a given object of
expenditure should be exclusively wasteful in order to come in
under the category of conspicuous waste. An article may be useful
and wasteful both, aud its utility to the consumer may be made up
of use and waste in the most varying proportions. Consumable
goods, and even productive goods, generally show the two elements
in combination, as constituents of their utility; although, in a
general way, the element of waste tends to predominate in
articles of consumption, while the contrary is true of articles
designed for productive use. Even in articles which appear at
first glance to serve for pure ostentation only, it is always
possible to detect the presence of some, at least ostensible,
useful purpose; and on the other hand, even in special machinery
and tools contrived for some particular industrial process, as
well as in the rudest appliances of human industry, the traces of
conspicuous waste, or at least of the habit of ostentation,
usually become evident on a close scrutiny. It would be hazardous
to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility
of any article or of any service, however obviously its prime
purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be
only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product
that the element of waste is in no way concerned in its value,
immediately or remotely.