Friday, 25 January 2013

Part XXIV - Honour of Thieves

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  Chapter Six is titled Pecuniary Canons of Taste.

Veblen reiterates that the reason people participate in conspicuous consumption and waste their money at ever increasing levels is not consciously to out-do one another, but to live up to the expectations of their peers; to fit in and be accepted.  In spending money for show, he lists areas that may be neglected, such as ‘articles of underclothing, some articles of food, kitchen utensils, and other household apparatus designed for service rather than for evidence’.  

He then makes the worrying statement that society's rules concerning an acceptable standard of living affect more than just a person's economic life. They also influence ‘the sense of duty, the sense of beauty, the sense of utility, the sense of devotional or ritualistic fitness, and the scientific sense of truth’.  He expounds on these various ideas in later chapters.

As an example, he discusses the legal system whose job it is to admonish persons who deviate from a certain code of behaviour. Early on, Veblen pointed out that the ownership of property was a foundation of the acquisition of wealth and position by the upper classes. Even today it could be said that the ownership of property is a sacred concept. It is generally the motivation of theft to raise one's status.    

Back in 1899 Veblen makes the observation that it is better to be a big thief than a petty one, because
“The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance than the small thief of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law and some good repute accrues to him from his increased wealth and from his spending the irregularly acquired possessions in a seemly manner. A well-bred expenditure of his booty especially appeals with great effect to persons of a cultivated sense of the proprieties, and goes far to mitigate the sense of moral turpitude with which his dereliction is viewed by them."

He goes on to say that if a man is seen to be stealing ‘only’ because he wished to provide a ‘decent’ life for his wife (who was brought up in the lap of luxury) the theft would be viewed not only as being under extenuating circumstances, but practically as an honourable act. The idea of holding thieves in awe ' peculiarly true where the dereliction involves an appreciable predatory or piratical element’. Further, ‘…all that considerable body of morals that clusters about the concept of an inviolable ownership is itself a psychological precipitate of the traditional meritoriousness of wealth.'

In short, Veblen thinks society was pretty much blinded by money and the person who had it, regardless of how they got it, would command some level of respect. I'm thinking that there was probably some truth to this. I'm still trying to decide if there is still some truth to this idea. On one hand I'm thinking about the rescue of the banks; on the other hand I'm thinking Bernie Madoff. I haven't decided yet.

What do you think?


Susan Partlan said...

There may have been some truth to it at the time, but it doesn't ring true now.

True, there will always be greedy bankers, and I suppose there will always be people who hold them in awe, but I don't think most people are blinded by money.

Maybe I'm naive.

Shelley said...

Susan - Given the proliferation of 'reality' TV shows, strange ideas about celebrity, the general swallowing of many unfounded ideas put out via advertising, I have to conclude that a vast number of people are blind and otherwise handicapped. It may not be directly attributed to money, but I suspect it does have a hand in society's gullibility. I now sound like a properly 'old' person, don't I, wringing my hands over the state of the world!

Beryl said...

As I read this, I thought about Bernie Maddoff and how his treatment didn't fit this archaic concept, so it was pretty sweet to see you mention him at the end. But I don't get the connection you make between his absolutely illegal Ponzi scheme and the loans made to some US banks. I could see Verben approving of the high life his thievery financed and contrasting it to an expensive drug habit.

Carolyn said...

Shelley; in reply to your question... yes "coupons" are "remnants" and has exactly the same meaning in France as it does in English speaking countries... the stores sell remnants and end of bolts; smaller, pre-cut pieces of fabric, as opposed to a regular fabric store which cuts the length of fabric you desire. I visited a few whilst we were in Paris last June and bought a few pieces. Actually, thank you for reminding me of them, I really should look them out and make something!

Shelley said...

Beryl - Perhaps I've chosen bad examples. I haven't followed the stories closely, only gone with my immediate impressions. I had the idea that banks were saved while individuals were not. Here in Britain one case in point might be Fred Goodwin, former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland; his annual pension was raised from £693,000 to £703,000 because he worked an extra month. I see, however, that the Queen has withdrawn his honour and he is no longer a Sir. Galling as that might be for him, and as much as I hate vandalism, I'm more in sympathy with the vandals' line of thinking.

Shelley said...

Carolyn - I'm going to have to get my head around French if we're going to be spending more time there, eh? Can't wait to see what you come up with in your 'coupon' sewing!

Beryl said...

Thanks - Fred Goodwin is a great example. (Verben is so complex, that I could easily be misunderstanding him.) I like that he lost his "Sir", even if he does get to keep the $1500 per month.

Shelley said...

Beryl - He actually gets to keep about $7500 a month, but a man has to live...