Economist Thorstein Veblen’s best known for identifying and defining “conspicuous consumption,” the phenomena in which individuals use material objects to display social standing and economic power. It’s an insightful observation, one that has shaped consumer studies, and branding, since 1899, when Veblen debuted it in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. But conspicuous consumption is only half of a larger equation: It’s preceded by a less alliterative but far more influential catalyst, invidious comparison.
By Veblen’s definition, invidious comparison is “a process of valuation of persons in respect of worth” and resultant self-judgement. But this trait’s not born from a capitalist society, as one might assume; it’s more natural than that. By nature, humans are “agent[s] seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end.” When we see others accomplish an end we perceive as better than our own, we compare ourselves, and this comparison becomes a source of our social and self-esteem: “In any community where such an invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem.”
At first these natural comparisons were group based. Tribe A compares itself to Tribe B, gauging the land, water, or livestock levels, and in such cases, these comparisons can be quite productive. Early men and women contrasted themselves to others and improved accordingly, laying the groundwork for civilization as we know it. As a very elementary example, Tribe A saw Tribe B transition from huts to frame houses, so they did the same.
In this light, invidious comparison is an influential and essential economic force. Veblen rightly notes, “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.”
But as useful as invidious comparison was in humanity’s earliest days, things get more complicated – and divisive – after the advent of private property. Where once objects and resources were communal among tribes, private property gives people the power to set themselves apart: “The conditions of emulation change,” writes Veblen. “Tangible evidences of prowess—trophies—find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature of the paraphernalia of life.” With these shiny objects in the mix, the group’s distracted from shared goals and breaks into more granular sects. “Wherever the institution of private property is found, even in a slightly developed form, the economic process bears the character of a struggle between men for the possession of goods.”
Possessions are therefore, and thereafter, equated with public esteem. Goods become equated with respectability and take on what Veblen describes as “honorific character.” “Wealth is now itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor.” He goes on, “As the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to the complacency which we call self-respect.” And it’s from here that conspicuous consumption emerges — we buy to best the other guy, exponentially and endlessly.
Though both invidious comparison and conspicuous consumption are natural in any place where private property exists, they take on added value and power in democratic societies, particularly the model for all, the United States, the self-branded land of the free. Our national philosophy and structure depend on the idea that we’re all “equal;” that we’re all the same. Unlike Europe, which was ruled by monarchies and aristocrats, there are allegedly no state-sanctioned classes, castes, or cliques in America. By that logic, we’re all equal in the public sphere.
Thus, this public sphere — the streets, the grocery, the subway, the church, the park, etc. — becomes a space of comparison: it’s where we display ourselves, where we judge others, and where we judge ourselves against others, too. But, since we’re all “equal,” our atavistic instinct of comparison and one-upmanship is magnified and made more urgent. We have to continuously broadcast ourselves in the public sphere, and we do so most often with clothing, objects, and other “paraphernalia” of our times, all to impress perfect strangers, “to impress these transient observers, and to retain one's self-complacency under their observation.”
As Veblen notes, this compels Americans to buy – and display – more, more, more. Invidious comparison and conspicuous consumption “prompt us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves…. our standard of decency in expenditure, as in other ends of emulation, is set by the usage of those next above us in reputability.”
And, what’s more, there’s no upper level to this chase — “No approach to a definitive attainment is possible.” — so that broadcast never ends. It’s a ceaseless “struggle for pecuniary reputability” that keeps us keeping up with the Joneses – or whoever we perceive as our social betters.
It’s tempting to assume invidious comparison and conspicuous consumption are inherently negative. Sure, the ramifications of these dual forces can be negative, but, as Veblen noted, invidious comparison shaped civilization as we know it. (He even insists “invidious” isn’t meant to “depreciate;” rather, it’s a “technical” term.)
Even in the American context, invidious comparison is less an overt negative and more a clinical symptom in our system: Our democratic system couldn’t exist without invidious comparison. If invidious comparison weren’t allowed to occur, social roles would have to be defined from above, eradicating any hope for social mobility. It would be akin to a totalitarian edict defining our role from the top down. There would be no personal expression, no fashion, no individuality – all would be suppressed lest they spark a natural urge to compare and contrast.
That said, the fact that invidious comparison and resultant conspicuous consumption feed into a divisive, economically-defined social strata is a flaw in our own collective mindsets, rather than in the phenomena themselves.
Considering that invidious comparison is organic and conspicuous consumption is its natural byproduct, we can reframe both phenomena as essential mechanisms in our democratic system. We can use them for good, rather than to perpetuate materialistic pursuits.
Consumerism doesn’t need to be conspicuous, nor does comparison need to be based on “trophies.” We the people have the power to reorient our priorities, using consumerism to support responsible companies and leverage comparison for more responsible ends, such as philanthropy. Sometimes cynically called “conspicuous compassion,” this idea rebalances the equation by encouraging people to show off their largesse, rather than their own large lives. The impulse to best the other guy still exists, but has been redirected, or at least repurposed, for the greater good, rather than self-love.
If such a reorientation could happen – and, I admit, that’s a big if – but if it could, people’s consumption would no longer lead to materially-defined strata, but to a social system in which “trophies” are won for the community as a whole. And wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?