Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Thorstein Veblen, Wry Hedgehog

Isaiah Berlin, the British diplomat and philosopher, is celebrated for separating thinkers into two groups. The first group is foxes, the second, hedgehogs. Foxes know many things; hedgehogs know one big thing. If ever anyone fit the hedgehog category, it was Norwegian-American economist and anthropologist Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen's big idea was propounded in a small, wry book first published in 1899, "The Theory of the Leisure Class". His notion was that the actions of humans across the world are driven primarily by an urge to display their superiority by demonstrating their economic clout through the showing off of  wealth. The more wasteful and frivolous an activity, the more it shows how much you can afford to throw away. He called this "Conspicuous Consumption". He goes on to explain darn near anything anyone does in terms of his great idea, and makes quite a case.

Why do suburbanites own SUVs to drive to the grocery store? They are expensive gas hogs, and thus confer status. Why do we buy McMansions with three car garages, jacuzzis and opulent kitchens, and payments that slowly crush us? Veblen knows. Your boat, your vacation, your membership in the gym? It's all about the bling, baby.

Veblen finds replications of this behavior across time and culture. It crosses lines of class and race.  If Veblen were alive today, he would not find us difficult to recognize or understand. Foxes or Hedgehogs, we're all too human.

1 comment:

  1. Much less well known is Veblen's corallary concept of "the urge to craftsmanship," which as you might guess is a kind of psychic antidote to conspicuous consumption. An urge, for example, to produce a dig hatful pantheon of paeans to a groups of artists and intellectuals.