Happy Birthday, Thorstein Veblen, Who Coined the Term "Conspicuous Consumption"

Public Domain. Thorstein Veblen

We live in his world of conspicuous waste.

One question that comes up in our discussion of the Convenience Industrial Complex is 'why do we buy?' What drives us to get things we know we don't need, that we know are bad for the planet? Thorstein Veblen, born on this day in 1857, discussed this in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he first wrote about conspicuous consumption, now interpreted as meaning the public ostentatious display of wealth.

lining up for ipone

© Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images/ lining up for iphone in London The flip side of conspicuous consumption was conspicuous waste, the ability to just throw things away and buy replacements even when they work perfectly well, because you can.

The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is... present as a constraining norm selectively shaping and sustaining our sense of what is beautiful.

According to a website conveniently named Conspicuous Consumption,

The term refers to consumers who buy expensive items to display wealth and income rather than to cover the real needs of the consumer. A flashy consumer uses such behavior to maintain or gain higher social status. Most classes have a flashy consumer affect [sic] and influence over other classes, seeking to emulate the behavior. The result, according to Veblen, is a society characterized by wasted time and money.

Wirden on Pixabay/CC BY 2.0

There is also a category of stuff called "Veblen goods", which really exist only to show the status of the person flaunting it. Rolls-Royce or fancy supercars are a good example; a Lamborghini won't get you anywhere faster in a world with speed limits. A Patek-Philippe watch doesn't keep time as accurately as a Timex.

Consumption is used as a way to gain and signal status. Through “conspicuous consumption” often came “conspicuous waste,” which Veblen detested. Much of modern advertising premised on the “gotta have” society is built upon a Veblenian notion of consumption and rivalry.

Veblen also explains why poor people often vote for demagogues and populists, even though it is often not in their best interest:

The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after tomorrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands today.

As an economist, he wouldn't find a place in today's USA:

A protective tariff is a typical conspiracy in restraint of trade.

And in these times, who could ever forget:

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 perhaps his most famous:

Invention is the mother of necessity.

Happy 162nd birthday, Thorstein!