Sunday, 8 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part III

The previous Unwelcome Ideas post introduced  Thorstein Veblen’s basic thesis of conspicuous consumption. The next question is – can we apply his ideas to modern times when elite tastes are perhaps a little more discreet? The glaringly obvious answer is yes.

One example is enough to set this all too familiar ball rolling. Recently while driving along a motorway at my usual sedate 60mph, I was passed by a driver in a Toyota Prius doing at least 85mph. You’d think a Prius driver would tootle along at a fuel and planet-conserving 55mph wouldn’t you? Yet I don’t ever recall coming up behind a Prius tootling along the motorway at 55mph, let alone the optimum speed which would presumably be even lower.

So faux environmental virtues must be added to big houses, expensive cars, refined tastes in music, literature, food, holidays, interior decor and personal adornment. From social mores to upmarket brands to cosmetic dentistry, the list is endless because as Veblen pointed out, social status is closely linked to pointless activity and that's a very wide field indeed.

Modern life would have been grist to Veblen’s mill because in essence, nothing has changed. It’s all so well known and perhaps that’s the only mystery. Veblen was merely pointing out in a systematic way things we already know. And this counts as a minor mystery doesn’t it? Because although we know all this stuff, it makes no real difference to our ideas of social status and the way we behave. Yet these things are in no way hidden from us. 


Mark Wadsworth said...

This understanding of conspicious consumption, aka Keeping Up With The Joneses is argument number 1,743 in favour of LVT, because people will 'complain' about how outrageous their LVT bill is, but actually they are not complaining at all, they will be boasting.

A K Haart said...

I agree Mark. We know all about keeping up with the Jones, yet that doesn't actually stop us keeping up with them in some way or another. A huge LVT bill would indeed become a source of outraged pride for quite a few.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"A source of outraged pride" is a good way of putting it. We know that English people don't like to talk about how much they earn (even though many would like to), but they do like to boast about what their house is worth.

So being able to 'complain' (i.e. boast) about how much LVT you pay (implication being 'but we've still got plenty left for...') would square the circle nicely and be the perfect outlet.