Law in Contemporary Society
Conspicuous Insecurity

Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class makes some bold claims about what people do and why they do it.

  • In the most precise sense, not quite. Veblen is devising an economic theory, which attempts to explain why certain material institutions (that is, products, practices, procedures) tend to endure while others tend to perish. That is, he's seeking a principal for the organization of economic history. Veblen is not devising psychological theory, which you might have described as being about what people think and why they think they behave as they do. He does, however, believe that what we today call orthodox economics has a reliance on bad psychological theory, which holds that people are rational in their economic thinking, and behave according to the dictates of rationality as they understand them. He believes that people's economic conduct arises from unconscious motives. But he does not have a theory of unconscious psychological process, which was being devised by Freud at the same time. Instead, he depends on a version of instinct psychology that assumes people's thinking is cross-culturally built up from simple biologically-structured units, like the "instinct of workmanship," and the endowment with personality of all ungovernable forces. His psychology is generally unimportant and specifically not relevant to your essay.

He theorizes about what he believes most people are seeking (a good name, fame, merit and repute) and what these people are apparently trying to avoid (disesteem and ostracism). Veblen ties external manifestation of these goals into acts conspicuous consumption. And when Veblen looks to motivating forces behind this phenomenon, he frequently refers to the concept of self-respect. But I think, or at least I hope, that Veblen’s got it wrong -- at least as concerns the self-respect part.

  • Because social psychology (not why we think what we think, but how we influence one another's thinking) operates on culturally-specific nouns, if you assume that this is the subject matter of Veblen's account, he must be right in only some places and will surely be wrong in others, because the palette of emotions and life goals is culturally-determined. In fact, however, Veblen isn't writing psychology, and it doesn't matter to his analysis whether the feelings people identify themselves as having and the goals they think of themselves as pursuing have the names he gives to them within the cultural environment in which he operates. Rather, his theory says that whatever the local palette of emotions and behaviors, institutions that facilitate pecuniary competition will tend sifferentially to survive. Because this is a historicist theory it doesn't purport to explain how individual institutions work, in the same way that Darwin's view of life doesn't explain (or in the first place, even possess) a theory of inheritance. This is the problem with many essays in this collection that announce Veblen is "wrong" or "partial" because a detail of life seems to them not to demonstrate the operation of pecuniary competition. You are making an equivalently-serious but different category error, to the same effect.

Instead, one of the dominant motivators behind the social activity described in The Theory of the Leisure Class can be encapsulated in one word: insecurity. Interestingly, this is a word that I do not recall seeing in Veblen’s work, but it is a motivating force that represents the axis around which spins the majority of the consumptive activities he describes.

  • That depends on the social psychology of a given situation, and is entirely outside the scope of his theoretical interest. As it happens, for what an opinion may be worth, I think you're wrong, and that his treatment of American downward mobility in its 19th-century form (decayed gentility) is helpful in understanding late-20th century middle class socio-economic insecurity. But "helpful" wouldn't mean that the two situations perfectly correspond, only that the nature of the short-term socio-economic conditions and the psychological responses following from them are taking place in nearly-located cultural settings, where the long-term motions in which Veblen is interested will play out in more or less the same way.

Insecurity arises from a variety of social contexts, and it knows no social or economic bounds. And consuming is a necessary part of life. But conspicuously consuming in an effort to be recognized as a “rising consumer” (the type of consumption that is employed to make a pointed statement to others about one’s relative worth) reflects personal insecurities vis--vis others’ perceived opinions that the consumer believes she should value. Veblen leads the reader to the notion that mimicking the consumptive habits of the next “better” class of people is a path to retaining and reinforcing self-respect. “[T]he 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” (p. 59). Alternatively, Veblen comes closer to the mark when he says, “[t]he 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” (p. 71). Attempting to outdo one set of people by emulating others doesn’t sound like the type of character-building activity that engenders self-respect.

  • But your "self-respect" and his aren't necessarily the same. Shame cultures (whether it be Japanese or Minnesota Scandinavian Lutheran) have "self-respect" that differs from the "self-respect" of guilt cultures, just as Portuguese culture has a nostalgic form of semi-sweet mostly-bitter sorrow not present in the English vocabulary. The very idea of "character-building activity" is individualist guilt culture talk, after all. As you yourself show above, Veblen is attempting to devise a culture-independent analysis, in which institutions are subjected by fitness for use in competitive emulation, which is for all practical purposes as much an extra-psychic social process as the dominance hierarchies among wolves or baboons, or the mating leks of moose and deer.

And once formed, the antisocial motivations that drive “invidious comparisons” aren’t usually the personal qualities to which most would admit, unlike those personal qualities that reflect genuine self-respect. Consequently, it is hard to believe that the “stimulus” to which Veblen refers could be linked to the preservation of self-respect. Nonetheless, Veblen seems determined to draw a parallel between self-respect and catering to popular opinion when he states that, “soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to that complacency which we call self-respect” (p. 25). Here again, I think Veblen confuses matters, or perhaps he is claiming that we all confuse matters – complacency implies a self-satisfaction that does not necessarily intersect with self-respect.

  • This paragraph shows the full measure of the confusion engendered by the attempt to keep up an argument with Veblen at the wrong level of explanation. It would be better to figure out what you want to say and get it said than to worry further about whether what he is saying uses "genuine" names for local emotions.

Veblen also seems to believe that the consumers about whom he writes maintain their sense of self-respect by conspicuously consuming in front of those they are trying to impress – some of whom are the very same people they are trying to outdo. “[T]he effect on consumption is to concentrate it upon the lines which are most patent to the observers whose good opinion is sought; . . .” (p. 76). And, according to Veblen, self-respect comes from the acknowledgement by those one is trying to match or outdo that her consumption has in fact impressed or outdone them. “[T]he usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbours” (p. 25). However, if the observers are, as Veblen suggests, motivated by the same insecurities as the consumer, then confirmation of the acceptability of the consumer’s consumption will not in all likelihood be forthcoming, and if forthcoming, it likely will not be sincere. Instead, observers will be too distracted by their own discomfort at the thought that the consumer is either catching up to them or outdoing them. Hence the observers’ increased efforts toward heightened consumption. And the consumer will be frustrated by the lack of observer confirmation, perhaps believing that additional effort will produce the desired reaction. Hence the consumer’s increased efforts toward heightened consumption. And ‘round and ‘round they go, each player maneuvering, comparing and tallying. But it is a game that, having played it myself, I know that no one will win.

  • Veblen isn't making a theory about who wins, but rather about what institutions tend to survive. You are confusing his concerns with yours.

And perhaps Veblen knew that no one would win when he seemed to be testing his own theory. It appears as if life imitated art, at least where Veblen’s own consumption and women were concerned. Veblen’s specious internalization of his own historical reference to women as chattels springs forth from his biography repeatedly. Whether there is any insecurity behind his dalliances is debatable, but I doubt there is any self-respect. And I doubt he wanted, in hindsight, his own engagements in arguably wasteful consumption to become quite as conspicuous as they in fact became, albeit with the prodding of others, especially given the long-term professional consequences to himself.

  • This is foolish ad hominem. Making reliable inferences about the nature of other peoples' real intra-psychic motivations for their sex lives requires both detailed knowledge and an empathetic stance; you are capable of neither here. In general, at the sociological level one can say that there is less hypocrisy among those openly living according to minority sexual mores than in the majority for the same reason that there are few hypocrites among persecuted religions: people will not deliberately lay themselves open to discrimination and destruction for that in which they do not truly believe. Of course, Veblen could have been a believer that women were chattel and only thought he was a feminist who believed in women's sexual autonomy living in a culture that believed in treating upper-class women as sexual slaves to husbands found in the marriage market. Perhaps Edith Wharton was also just such a hypocrite. More likely, I think, they both believed what they thought they believed, and acted accordingly. But precisely what difference would it make either way?

How much Veblen wrote about himself, as well as others, when he wrote about persistent human foibles is not readily discernable. I know that when I have played this game, I would have said much the same things Veblen is saying. A book by the insecure written for the insecure. But perhaps behind the theoretically-packaged gushings stands a man who never took any of this seriously anyway. Most likely Veblen is gaming all of us – he knew what he was selling, and to whom he was selling it – a misleading but much appreciated guidebook for the insecure consumer with discretionary income who grapples with himself and others for personal aggrandizement. If so, I sense that over time he gained (and probably gamed) a large and growing audience, perhaps Eliot Spitzer included. And no matter how many readers have shared in the humor, I’m sure he’s still chuckling.

  • This contains another peculiar ad hominem: he wasn't really trying to achieve the intellectual objectives he defined and defended for a lifetime; he was actually trying to write humor to make money. Again, there's more than enough evidence available to contest the premise, I think successfully, but it's not clear why we would bother differing on something that makes no difference. If he was trying to write comedy and wrote brilliant economic theory instead, might it not be useful to discuss it as economic theory? At any rate, it wouldn't make sense to discuss it as psychological theory, which neither the author nor the reader is likely to believe it is.

-- BarbPitman - 25 Mar 2008

  • I think the route to improvement here is pretty clear. Let's get the "Veblen isn't a good psychologist" business out, because Veblen isn't a psychologist at all, and either write about the psychology without him, because that's what you really want to write about, or write about his economic theory without the ad hominem psychologizing. I think the former the more promising course, because I think you mostly want to write about insecurity again.

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r3 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:45:38 - IanSullivan
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