I Cittadini interessati possono scaricare l'intero testo dalla prima pagina

.pdf 42,2 Mb



The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen - 1899

Chapter V

The Pecuniary Standard of Living

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
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.
It is for this class to determine, in general outline, what
scheme of Life the community shall accept as decent or honorific;
and it is their office by precept and example to set forth this
scheme of social salvation in its highest, ideal form. But the
higher leisure class can exercise this quasi-sacerdotal office
only under certain material limitations. The class cannot at
discretion effect a sudden revolution or reversal of the popular
habits of thought with respect to any of these ceremonial
requirements. It takes time for any change to permeate the mass
and change the habitual attitude of the people; and especially it
takes time to change the habits of those classes that are
socially more remote from the radiant body. The process is slower
where the mobility of the population is less or where the
intervals between the several classes are wider and more abrupt.
But if time be allowed, the scope of the discretion of the
leisure class as regards questions of form and detail in the
community's scheme of life is large; while as regards the
substantial principles of reputability, the changes which it can
effect lie within a narrow margin of tolerance. Its example and
precept carries the force of prescription for all classes below
it; but in working out the precepts which are handed down as
governing the form and method of reputability -- in shaping the
usages and the spiritual attitude of the lower classes -- this
authoritative prescription constantly works under the selective
guidance of the canon of conspicuous waste, tempered in varying
degree by the instinct of workmanship. To those norms is to be
added another broad principle of human nature -- the predatory
animus -- which in point of generality and of psychological
content lies between the two just named. The effect of the latter
in shaping the accepted scheme of life is yet to be discussed.
The canon of reputability, then, must adapt itself to the
economic circumstances, the traditions, and the degree of
spiritual maturity of the particular class whose scheme of life
it is to regulate. It is especially to be noted that however high
its authority and however true to the fundamental requirements of
reputability it may have been at its inception, a specific formal
observance can under no circumstances maintain itself in force if
with the lapse of time or on its transmission to a lower
pecuniary class it is found to run counter to the ultimate ground
of decency among civilized peoples, namely, serviceability for
the purpose of an invidious comparison in pecuniary success.
It is evident that these canons of expenditure have much to
say in determining the standard of living for any community and
for any class. It is no less evident that the standard of living
which prevails at any time or at any given social altitude will
in its turn have much to say as to the forms which honorific
expenditure will take, and as to the degree to which this
"higher" need will dominate a people's consumption. In this
respect the control exerted by the accepted standard of living is
chiefly of a negative character; it acts almost solely to prevent
recession from a scale of conspicuous expenditure that has once
become habitual.
A standard of living is of the nature of habit. It is an
habitual scale and method of responding to given stimuli. The
difficulty in the way of receding from an accustomed standard is
the difficulty of breaking a habit that has once been formed. The
relative facility with which an advance in the standard is made
means that the life process is a process of unfolding activity
and that it will readily unfold in a new direction whenever and
wherever the resistance to self-expression decreases. But when
the habit of expression along such a given line of low resistance
has once been formed, the discharge will seek the accustomed
outlet even after a change has taken place in the environment
whereby the external resistance has appreciably risen. That
heightened facility of expression in a given direction which is
called habit may offset a considerable increase in the resistance
offered by external circumstances to the unfolding of life in the
given direction. As between the various habits, or habitual modes
and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual's
standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point
of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of
the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a
given direction.
That is to say, in the language of current economic theory,
while men are reluctant to retrench their expenditures in any
direction, they are more reluctant to retrench in some directions
than in others; so that while any accustomed consumption is
reluctantly given up, there are certain lines of consumption
which are given up with relatively extreme reluctance. The
articles or forms of consumption to which the consumer clings
with the greatest tenacity are commonly the so-called necessaries
of life, or the subsistence minimum. The subsistence minimum is
of course not a rigidly determined allowance of goods, definite
and invariable in kind and quantity; but for the purpose in hand
it may be taken to comprise a certain, more or less definite,
aggregate of consumption required for the maintenance of life.
This minimum, it may be assumed, is ordinarily given up last in
case of a progressive retrenchment of expenditure. That is to
say, in a general way, the most ancient and ingrained of the
habits which govern the individual's life -- those habits that
touch his existence as an organism -- are the most persistent and
imperative. Beyond these come the higher wants -- later-formed
habits of the individual or the race -- in a somewhat irregular
and by no means invariable gradation. Some of these higher wants,
as for instance the habitual use of certain stimulants, or the
need of salvation (in the eschatological sense), or of good
repute, may in some cases take precedence of the lower or more
elementary wants. In general, the longer the habituation, the
more unbroken the habit, and the more nearly it coincides with
previous habitual forms of the life process, the more
persistently will the given habit assert itself. The habit will
be stronger if the particular traits of human nature which its
action involves, or the particular aptitudes that find exercise
in it, are traits or aptitudes that are already largely and
profoundly concerned in the life process or that are intimately
bound up with the life history of the particular racial stock.
The varying degrees of ease with which different habits are
formed by different persons, as well as the varying degrees of
reluctance with which different habits are given up, goes to say
that the formation of specific habits is not a matter of length
of habituation simply. Inherited aptitudes and traits of
temperament count for quite as much as length of habituation in
deciding what range of habits will come to dominate any
individual's scheme of life. And the prevalent type of
transmitted aptitudes, or in other words the type of temperament
belonging to the dominant ethnic element in any community, will
go far to decide what will be the scope and form of expression of
the community's habitual life process. How greatly the
transmitted idiosyncrasies of aptitude may count in the way of a
rapid and definitive formation of habit in individuals is
illustrated by the extreme facility with which an all-dominating
habit of alcoholism is sometimes formed; or in the similar
facility and the similarly inevitable formation of a habit of
devout observances in the case of persons gifted with a special
aptituDe in that direction. Much the same meaning attaches to
that peculiar facility of habituation to a specific human
environment that is called romantic love.
Men differ in respect of transmitted aptitudes, or in
respect of the relative facility with which they unfold their
life activity in particular directions; and the habits which
coincide with or proceed upon a relatively strong specific
aptitude or a relatively great specific facility of expression
become of great consequence to the man's well-being. The part
played by this element of aptitude in determining the relative
tenacity of the several habits which constitute the standard of
living goes to explain the extreme reluctance with which men give
up any habitual expenditure in the way of conspicuous
consumption. The aptitudes or propensities to which a habit of
this kind is to be referred as its ground are those aptitudes
whose exercise is comprised in emulation; and the propensity for
emulation -- for invidious comparison -- is of ancient growth and
is a pervading trait of human nature. It is easily called into
vigorous activity in any new form, and it asserts itself with
great insistence under any form under which it has once found
habitual expression. When the individual has once formed the
habit of seeking expression in a given line of honorific
expenditure -- when a given set of stimuli have come to be
habitually responded to in activity of a given kind and direction
under the guidance of these alert and deep-reaching propensities
of emulation -- it is with extreme reluctance that such an
habitual expenditure is given up. And on the other hand, whenever
an accession of pecuniary strength puts the individual in a
position to unfold his life process in larger scope and with
additional reach, the ancient propensities of the race will
assert themselves in determining the direction which the new
unfolding of life is to take. And those propensities which are
already actively in the field under some related form of
expression, which are aided by the pointed suggestions afforded
by a current accredited scheme of life, and for the exercise of
which the material means and opportunities are readily available
-- these will especially have much to say in shaping the form and
direction in which the new accession to the individual's
aggregate force will assert itself. That is to say, in concrete
terms, in any community where conspicuous consumption is an
element of the scheme of life, an increase in an individual's
ability to pay is likely to take the form of an expenditure for
some accredited line of conspicuous consumption.
With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the
propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert
and persistent of the economic motives proper. In an industrial
community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in
pecuniary emulation; and this, so far as regards the Western
civilized communities of the present, is virtually equivalent to
saying that it expresses itself in some form of conspicuous
waste. The need of conspicuous waste, therefore, stands ready to
absorb any increase in the community's industrial efficiency or
output of goods, after the most elementary physical wants have
been provided for. Where this result does not follow, under
modern conditions, the reason for the discrepancy is commonly to
be sought in a rate of increase in the individual's wealth too
rapid for the habit of expenditure to keep abreast of it; or it
may be that the individual in question defers the conspicuous
consumption of the increment to a later date -- ordinarily with a
view to heightening the spectacular effect of the aggregate
expenditure contemplated. As increased industrial efficiency
makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less
labor, the energies of the industrious members of the community
are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous
expenditure, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace.
The strain is not lightened as industrial efficiency increases
and makes a lighter strain possible, but the increment of output
is turned to use to meet this want, which is indefinitely
expansible, after the manner commonly imputed in economic theory
to higher or spiritual wants. It is owing chiefly to the presence
of this element in the standard of living that J. S. Mill was
able to say that "hitherto it is questionable if all the
mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of
any human being." The accepted standard of expenditure in the
community or in the class to which a person belongs largely
determines what his standard of living will be. It does this
directly by commending itself to his common sense as right and
good, through his habitually contemplating it and assimilating
the scheme of life in which it belongs; but it does so also
indirectly through popular insistence on conformity to the
accepted scale of expenditure as a matter of propriety, under
pain of disesteem and ostracism. To accept and practice the
standard of living which is in vogue is both agreeable and
expedient, commonly to the point of being indispensable to
personal comfort and to success in life. The standard of living
of any class, so far as concerns the element of conspicuous
waste, is commonly as high as the earning capacity of the class
will permit -- with a constant tendency to go higher. The effect
upon the serious activities of men is therefore to direct them
with great singleness of purpose to the largest possible
acquisition of wealth, and to discountenance work that brings no
pecuniary gain. At the same time the effect on consumption is to
concentrate it upon the lines which are most patent to the
observers whose good opinion is sought; while the inclinations
and aptitudes whose exercise does not involve a honorific
expenditure of time or substance tend to fall into abeyance
through disuse.
Through this discrimination in favor of visible consumption
it has come about that the domestic life of most classes is
relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt
portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of
observers. As a secondary consequence of the same discrimination,
people habitually screen their private life from observation. So
far as concerns that portion of their consumption that may
without blame be carried on in secret, they withdraw from all
contact with their neighbors, Hence the exclusiveness of people,
as regards their domestic life, in most of the industrially
developed communities; and hence, by remoter derivation, the
habit of privacy and reserve that is so large a feature in the
code of proprieties of the better class in all communities. The
low birthrate of the classes upon whom the requirements of
reputable expenditure fall with great urgency is likewise
traceable to the exigencies of a standard of living based on
conspicuous waste. The conspicuous consumption, and the
consequent increased expense, required in the reputable
maintenance of a child is very considerable and acts as a
powerful deterrent. It is probably the most effectual of the
Malthusian prudential checks.
The effect of this factor of the standard of living, both in
the way of retrenchment in the obscurer elements of consumption
that go to physical comfort and maintenance, and also in the
paucity or absence of children, is perhaps seen at its best among
the classes given to scholarly pursuits. Because of a presumed
superiority and scarcity of the gifts and attainments that
characterize their life, these classes are by convention subsumed
under a higher social grade than their pecuniary grade should
warrant. The scale of decent expenditure in their case is pitched
correspondingly high, and it consequently leaves an exceptionally
narrow margin disposable for the other ends of life. By force of
circumstances, their habitual sense of what is good and right in
these matters, as well as the expectations of the community in
the way of pecuniary decency among the learned, are excessively
high -- as measured by the prevalent degree of opulence and
earning capacity of the class, relatively to the non-scholarly
classes whose social equals they nominally are. In any modern
community where there is no priestly monopoly of these
occupations, the people of scholarly pursuits are unavoidably
thrown into contact with classes that are pecuniarily their
superiors. The high standard of pecuniary decency in force among
these superior classes is transfused among the scholarly classes
with but little mitigation of its rigor; and as a consequence
there is no class of the community that spends a larger
proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these.