The Theory of the Leisure Class

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The Theory of the Leisure Class is a book, first published in 1899, by the American economist Thorstein Veblen while he was a professor at the University of Chicago.

Veblen claimed he wrote the book as a perceptive personal essay criticizing contemporary culture, rather than as an economics textbook. Critics claim this was an excuse for his failure to cite sources. Nonetheless, Theory of the Leisure Class is considered one of the great works of economics as well as the first detailed critique of consumerism.



In the book, Veblen argues that economic life is not driven by notions of utility, but by social vestiges from pre-historic times. Drawing examples from his time (turn-of-the-century America) and anthropology, he held that much of today's society is a variation on early tribal life.

According to Veblen, beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a division of labor along certain lines. The "higher-status" group monopolized war and hunting while farming and cooking were considered inferior work.

He argued this was due to barbarism and conquest of some tribes over others. Once conquerors took control, they relegated the more menial and labor-intensive jobs to the subjugated people, while retaining the more warlike and violent work for themselves. It didn't matter that these "menial" jobs did more to support society than the "higher" ones.

To Veblen, society never grew out of this stage; it simply adapted into different forms and expressions. For example, he noted that during the Middle Ages, only the nobility was allowed to hunt and fight wars. Likewise, in modern times, he noted that manual laborers usually make less money than white-collar workers.

Conspicuous consumption and leisure

Veblen, in this book, coined the now-common concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.

He defined conspicuous consumption as the waste of money by people to display a higher status than others. One famous example he used was the use of silver utensils at meals, even though utensils made of cheaper material worked just as well or, in some cases, better.

He defined conspicious leisure as the waste of time by people to give themselves higher status. As examples, he noted that to be a "gentleman", a man must study such things as philosophy and the fine arts, which have no economic value in themselves.

Economic drive

Whereas classical economics defines humans as rational, utility-seeking people who try to maximize their pleasure, Veblen recast them as completely irrational creatures who chase after social status without much regard to their own happiness.

He used the word emulation to describe these actions. For example, people tend to try and mimic the more respected among each other in order to gain more status for themselves.

As an example from modern-day life, certain brands and stores are considered more "high-class" than others, and people may shop at them, even though they cannot afford them, and cheaper alternatives would make their whole lives easier.

Following his line of reasoning, Veblen also concluded that businessmen were simply the latest manifestation of the leisure class. He noted that businessmen do not produce goods and services, but simply shift them around while taking a profit. He thus argued that the modern businessman is no different than a barbarian - like them, he uses prowess and competitive skills to make money off others, and lived off the spoils of conquests rather than produce things himself.

Implications to society

Veblen outlined a number of consequences of this social order. To name a few:

  • The subjugation of women. As women were once used as "trophies of war" by barbarians, in modern times, the housewife also served as a trophy to show off a man's success. By not allowing their wives to take outside professions, a man could show off her conspicious leisure as proof of his status (Veblen didn't consider housecleaning useful), and spend money on his wife through conspicuous consumption.
  • The growth of sports such as football. To Veblen, all physical exertion that did not lead to an economic end was waste. Therefore, sports were a way for people to display conspicuous leisure, while buying the equipment needed was conspicuous consumption.
  • Religion was a group expression of both conspicious leisure and consumption. A church, to Veblen, was simply a waste of building space, and the clergy a group paid to do nothing useful.
  • Such things as manners and etiquette were nothing but practices of conspicuous leisure with no practical value.

Even Veblen's supporters disagreed with many of these assertions. Moreover, many of these views reflected (and excused) Veblen's own personal habits. To wit: Veblen's house was often a mess, with unmade beds and dirty dishes; his clothes were often in disarray; he was an atheist; and he tended to be extremely blunt and rude while dealing with other people.

Also, Veblen, unlike many of his colleagues, came from a relatively poor background, the son of immigrant farmers. His disdain for luxuries and high society reflects this upbringing. Unable to speak English until he attended college, he tended to view American society as an outsider, even though he was a natural-born U.S. citizen.

Use of satire, sarcasm and humor

Theory is often considered a satire on modern society. For example, this following passage is possibly the most often-quoted from his book:

A better illustration [of conspicuous leisure], or at least a more unmistakable one, is afforded by a certain king of France who was said to have lost his life in the observance of good form. In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat, the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But in so doing he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination.

The book's popularity and commercial success is based largely on this satire. After William Dean Howells gave the book a rave review as a social satire, it became a bestseller.

Ironically, Veblen did not intend for Leisure to be a satire, but a serious economic analysis of contemporary America. For example, his theories on businessmen would find a more serious forum discussion in his 1904 book, The Theory of Business Enterprise.

Intellectual significance

While Veblen was an economist and published this book as a treatise on economics, most modern economists ignore him. The primary reason for this appears to be his attack on the rational expectations theories that continue to dominate the discipline. Only in recent years, with the rise of such theories as butterfly economics, is Veblen being given serious consideration by economists.

Within the field of sociology, in contrast, Veblen was quickly picked up and integrated into their work. The classic Middletown studies made much use of Veblen's theories. More to the point, these and many other sociological studies supplied empirical evidence that confirmed Veblen's theories. In the Middletown studies, for example, researchers learned that lower-class families were willing to go without basic necessities such as food or new clothes to maintain a certain level of conspicuous consumption.

The concept of conspicuous consumption has been carried forward to this day, and is often used to criticize advertising and to explain why poorer classes have been unable to advance economically. However, his theories on the uselessness of businessmen have largely been ignored, nor is it believed that technocrats will eventually rule society.


While few observers deny the practice of emulation and conspicuous consumption, there is considerable debate over what luxuries and practices can be labeled as such. Part of the problem is that Theory does not comprehensively define it. As H.L. Mencken sarcastically remarked:

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 la Maryland to fried liver because plowhands must put up with the liver - or because the terrapin is intrinsically a more charming dose? Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman - or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better? (Mencken, "Professor Veblen," from Prejudices, First Series, 1919).

In other words, what some people define as "wastes of money," others define as "enjoyable luxuries," and these tastes often differ depending on the individual, as seen by the activities Veblen named above. For example, Mencken considered golf to be conspicuous leisure; a dedicated golf player would no doubt disagree (Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, Nov. 9, 1948).


A paperback edition was issued in Mineola, N.Y. by Dover Publications in 1994 with ISBN 0486280624. Although it was published in 1899, Penguin Books published it as part of its "Penguin Twentieth Century Classics" paperback series.

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