Author: Thorstein Veblen was born in Cato, Wisconsin on July 30, 1857. He spent the majority of his childhood working on his family farm as part of a Norwegian immigrant farming community. His parents stressed hard work and education, an emphasis that would factor into his disgust for conspicuous consumption. Veblen studied and worked at several universities including Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell. Veblen wrote The theory of the Leisure Class when he was in his early forties.
Context: The Theory of the Leisure Class was written in America in 1899. America was amidst the Gilded Age, a period of immense economic growth and industrialization.
Language: Veblen’s tone is satirical. He saw the leisure class as a hindrance to the progress of society. Veblen stated, “no one finds difficulty in assenting to the common place that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person.” Veblen used dry humor to make his point.
Audience: Veblen wrote for the Academic world. After Veblen graduated from Yale, he was unable to obtain an academic job due in part to prejudice against his Norwegian ancestry and because most universities considered him insufficiently educated in Christianity, so he returned to his family farm and began avidly reading. He then left to study economics as a graduate student at Cornell University and obtained his first academic appointment at the new University of Chicago. There he published his best-known books, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). These books made him famous overnight.
Intent: Veblen felt that other leading economists’ views were too narrow. He wanted economists to more fully understand the social and cultural causes and effects of economic changes. Specifically, he thought the focus should be on the social and cultural causes that were responsible for shifts in industry such as hunting to farming, and the effects of such shifts.
Message: Veblen argued that there was a split between the working class. He saw two groups in this division of labor: one group making wealth via industry and the other via exploit, which he identifies as the leisure class. The leisure class became vicarious consumers of ostentatious products in dress, food, furniture, and housing. Class pecuniary standing was based on public display of wealth via dress. Veblen cited the leisure class as the root of social conformity. As a model for dress and livery, the leisure class set a social precedent, which compelled those in classes below them to match. Veblen believed the demonstration of wealth was done solely for social status and thus criticized the leisure class. He associated the leisure class with waste and he also viewed such waste as a hindrance to economic productivity.