On Conspicuous Consumption

Monday, February 27, 2006
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Recently, I bought a very expensive, imported area rug for my new study. It’s the first thing people notice when they walk in the room. The elegance of this ornament makes me work better. I want to spend more time in my study. It’s supposed to have no redeeming value whatsoever. From Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class:

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.

I truly love this book, tho I hate it. Full of fallacy in regards to our canons of taste, but it’s truly a great read. This brings to mind Mencken:

“Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one – or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists – or because I genuinely love music? Do I prefer terrapin

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