Friday, 14 September 2012

Part V - Invidious Distinction and Self Esteem

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, written by an American economist named Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.  His second chapter was titled Pecuniary Emulation.

Economists have argued that man’s struggle to possess goods is about a struggle for subsistence.  In the age of technology this need changed to competition for an increase in the physical comforts afforded by the consumption of goods.  Some even claim that possession of goods is about satisfying spiritual, intellectual or aesthetic wants.  Veblen believed instead that the motive for ownership was emulation:  to equal or surpass what others have.

“The possession of wealth confers honor; it is an invidious distinction.  Nothing equally cogent can be said for the consumption of goods, nor for any other conceivable incentive to acquisition, and especially not for any incentive to accumulation of wealth.”


Of course, in a community where nearly all goods are private property, the poorer members of that community still need to earn their livelihood and so subsistence and physical comfort may for a while be their main motivations.  However, Veblen says, even in the case of the impecunious classes the motive of physical want is not as predominant as has been assumed. In contrast, for those members of the community chiefly concerned with the accumulation of wealth - the leisure class - the incentive of subsistence or physical comfort never plays a considerable part. 

According to Veblen, it’s all about the ‘invidious distinction attaching to wealth’:  making others envious.  Initially this invidious comparison was between the possessor of booty and the enemy group from which it had been taken.   The possessor’s prowess was still his group’s prowess and he may have felt himself to be keeping the honor of his group.  Veblen points out that

“This appreciation of exploit from the communal point of view is met with also at later stages of social growth, especially as regards the laurels of war.”

Over time, the invidious distinction begins to be made between the owner of the booty and other members of his own group, particularly under the ‘quasi-peaceable methods of nomadic life.’  Eventually in this quasi-peaceable stage accumulated property is less a trophy of predatory exploit and more a promotion of the owner’s success and predominance.  With development of the society, the possession of wealth gains in relative importance as the basis of repute and esteem.  Predatory aggression and warlike exploit are still admirable, but the opportunities for these means of distinction become less frequent and less grand.  At the same time there becomes more opportunities for industrial aggression and property is the more easily recognised evidence of repute and success rather than heroic achievement. 

As property becomes the conventional basis of esteem, its possession in some amount becomes necessary in order to have any reputable standing in the community.  One must accumulate property in order to retain one’s good name.  Getting property through exploit to demonstrate one’s efficiency was no longer the main criterion.  Simply having wealth, by exertion or inheritance, was now itself meritorious and conferred honor on its possessor.  Wealth became the basis of common place reputability and of a 'blameless social standing'. 

High honor and reward could still come from predatory efficiency in war or quasi-predatory efficiency in statecraft but what if one isn't by nature predatory or statesman-like?  The everyday person in the community still had to find the means come up to a certain, somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth, much like when a tribe had a standard of physical endurance and skill at arms in order to have any esteem.  Persons with greater wealth/skill were deemed meritorious.  Those with less wealth or prowess

‘…suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they suffer also in their own esteem, since the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbours.’ 

In the next post, I will finish discussing the ideas in Veblen’s chapter on Pecuniary Emulation.



BigLittleWolf said...

Property as the basis for esteem, or - more generally (applicable to today) - "stuff" as the basis for esteem... it's a fascinating discussion, even as the haves and the have-nots become more ill at ease with each other, and the issues around wealth and materialism are more often debated because of growing differences in quality of life (to say the least).

I always found it interesting that "old money" has such a different approach than "new money." Including a tendency toward less flash (stuff), and a strong commitment to philanthropy.

I think that still exists, though there's much less old wealth around to perpetuate that sort of sense of social responsibility.

Beryl said...

Interesting stuff.

Shelley said...

BLW - Actually, my impression is that 'stuff' is for the lower classes, but you're absolutely following the gist of the ideas. Mom and Daddy being self employed formed the idea that 'old money pays'; 'new money dodges'. My experience (as a maid!) bore that out! The ideas about philanthropy follow... there are so many things in Veblen that ring true, that's what makes him so interesting.

Shelley said...

Beryl - Actually, it's quite turgid, but interesting all the same...

Terri said...

so the purpose of owning is simply to make others feel least until you are inundated with "stuff"?

Shelley said...

Terri - I suppose one could go for quality over quantity. This isn't something I've ever mastered, but if one grew up in the upper class, one would probably do this more instinctively.

Susan Partlan said...

Like BLW, I've always thought of the very wealthy as having less, not more stuff, but definitely spending more on real estate and private education for children.

Gam Kau said...

Wow. I'm so impressed you managed to read and absorb his book. Even his wiki page challenges me. I am fascinated by class, signaling, consumerism and this summation is exactly what I needed!
Onward for more!