Law in Contemporary Society

Inconspicuous Consumption

-- By TheodorBruening - 27 Feb 2009


Veblen argues that the ruling superior leisure class distinguishes itself through wasteful consumption of luxuries: liquors, activities, ornaments and rituals. These luxuries and their consumption become glorified, dignified and exclusive; they’re taboo for the working or slave classes. This behavior is not unique to humans.


Humans distinguish themselves from one another through means of luxurious consumption for the same reason that a peacock’s tail is colorful. Natural selection cannot account for a costly, colourful display like the peacock’s tail. It is cumbersome, attracts predators, slows the bearer and costs many precious calories to grow. But unlike natural selection, which functions by adapting the organism to its environment, sexual selection functions by adapting the organism to the opposite gender. The peacock’s tail helps peahens select their mates.

But why would peahens choose the peacock with the most colorful tail, something which is so utterly impractical that it will attract predators and slow down an escape; why would any reasonable peahen want to hand this genetic handicap to their progeny? In fact, peahens, like any other female mammal, look for a mate with strong genes that provide for health, fertility, mental stability, longetivity and the smallest possible number of malevolent genetic mutations. Hence things like a peacock’s tail or a whale’s song are fitness indicators. The more complex the indicators, the more genetic information they summarize. Only an individual of high genetic strength could afford to grow a costly tail or spend hours on singing without dying through lack of energy or falling prey to predators. Precisely how the effort is wasted matters little. One species of apes displayed its fitness through growing large wasteful muscles and developed into gorillas, another through colorful facial skin and became baboons, while a third displayed its fitness through developing creative intelligence and became humans.

Wealth is still in almost every culture the determining factor of fitness. In the same way as the peacock’s tail developed did the rule that an engagement ring must cost two months’ salary. This handicap cost is moreover not fixed but commensurate with the fitness, or salary, of the individual. The most highly paid occupations – law, finance – each contain high levels of competition and prestige.

Lie to me

Some genetic qualities have non-transferable fitness indicia. They are communicated in the usual mating playbook in which the man has to show the usual mix of confidence, charm, disinterest, wit and social acceptance as well as features such as height and facial symmetry to display his favorable genes. Wealth as a fitness indicator, however, is directly transferable to one’s children. Given that proliferation of one’s genes is the closest thing to immortality, the wealth indicia of fitness become entrenched in caste-like structures in the way Veblen describes. Yet since wealth indicia of fitness are transferable, they may not be in accord with the actual genetic reality of the bearer. People may lie about their achievements, their jobs or education. They may have never earned a dime. This is why so much of human brainpower and literature is concerned with finding Mr. or Mrs. Right. In Titanic, Mr. Right shows his true qualities (wit, confidence) despite shortcomings in transferable fitness indicators (wealth); poor Cinderella overcomes her lack of wealth and ends up with (the very wealthy) Prince charming due to her superior beauty (read: fertility).

A peahen reading Veblen might think it preferable if the wasteful tail was abandoned and the energy used for more fruitful endeavors. Males should simply proclaim their fitness honestly. But this would be impossible to police and everyone would have incentives to lie. It would be equally pointless to forego human indicia of fitness; an edible potato is more useful than diamond ring or a night at the theatre, but I cannot forego millennia of evolution and replace the flirtatious handbook with a simple ‘Hi, I’m Theo. Love me.’ The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. And yes, non-transferable indicia have a direct relationship with wealth, for ambition, confidence and intelligence strongly tend to lead to wealth. For what other reason should lawyers enjoy such high prestige if not due to their intellect and ability? Incidentally, women do the same, for what do lipstick, rouge and silicone implants do other than enhance the display of fertility?


Mr. Veblen goes some length to cloak his work and opinions in ‘descriptive’ terms. However, his biting satire as well as the overall tone of the work suggests that something is amiss in society which wastes so many resources. Yet he is correct in descriptive terms only. What Veblen mystifies as ‘conspicuous’ is but common and natural; it can be observed in the animal kingdom. In other words, the insight which is gained through Veblen’s ‘uncovering’ of motives does not point to a means of amending the status quo. He misses the fact that the solution of a problem can be logically separate from the cause of the problem.

Moreover, the human drive for (conspicuous?) wealth and waste is arguably a ‘good’ thing. If it were not for the runaway evolution of creative intelligence in humans instead of, say, muscles, creating a brain that is both huge and hugely wasteful, humans would have never reached a state in which complex language can lead to aggregate information, which in turn was the founding stone of modern civilization. Modern conspicuous waste is but a logical continuation of this, pursued by different and more varied means.

It might be argued here that animals are not concerned with any of the troubles civilization has created for man and that humans might have been better off without it. But this puts the cart before the horse. Not only has civilization not created the problems, the problems (of waste) have created civilization. Moreover, animals, as shown above, are plagued by precisely the same issues of conspicuous consumption, if only on the basis of expending wasteful calories for singing instead of money for race horses.

For certain, society is plagued with problems of poverty and class segregation to name only two. Yet to see our desire for waste as the root of these problems is over-inclusive, for it will almost certainly be the solution too.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:11:47 - IanSullivan
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