Veblen feels strongly about the need to Keep Up with - or to Surpass - The Joneses:
"With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper."
In an industrial society, this emulation takes the form of conspicuous expenditure, which he also calls conspicuous waste. Veblen thought this waste would easily absorb any increases in production made possible by industrial efficiency. If it did not this would only be because an individual had not yet managed to keep up with a rapid increase in wealth, or perhaps because the person was saving up for something, ‘ordinarily with a view to heightening the spectacular effect of the aggregate expenditure contemplated.’
Sadly, there is never the situation where increased efficiency makes maintaining a lifestyle easier. Because the accepted standard of living is ever-rising, energies are expended towards ever higher expenditure. J. S. Mill is quoted as saying that
“hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.”
Of course, a person's standard of living is determined by the community or class they belong to, but also by the
‘popular insistence on conformity to the accepted scale of expenditure as a matter of propriety, under pain of disesteem and ostracism’.
Because living ‘in vogue’ is ‘agreeable and expedient’ and in consequence of the continual increases of the standard, men (as it were) are inclined to develop the single purpose of making more money and to dismiss activities that do not bring money.
The effect on consumption is to focus on those things most obvious to the observers whose good opinion is sought and to ignore any activity or object that fails enhance ones image. It was this focus on ‘visible consumption’ that led Veblen to state that the
‘domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers. As a secondary consequence of the same discrimination, people habitually screen their private life from observation…. So far as concerns that portion of their consumption that may without blame be carried on in secret, they withdraw from all contact with their neighbors... Hence the exclusiveness of people, as regards their domestic life, in most of the industrially developed communities; and hence, by remoter derivation, the habit of privacy and reserve that is so large a feature in the code of proprieties of the better class in all communities.’
So, those are one person’s thoughts about the lack of a sustainable lifestyle and the fading sense of community amongst neighbours. His ideas made me think of the Geordie saying ‘All fur coat and nae knickers’; also of Morty Morelli, one of the ex-husbands in the First Wives Club, who wore beautiful suits but cheap underwear. Whilst my underwear mostly tends to be on a par with my outerwear, I have to acknowledge fixing up the public spaces of my house before the private ones. However, my needs for privacy are probably more based on my sleeping and my housekeeping habits. I do tend to resent unscheduled intrusions and am grumpy enough not to answer the door – or the phone - if it damn well doesn’t suit me.
What about you?