Thorstein Veblen

American economist and sociologist

Thorstein Bunde Veblen (30 July 18573 August 1929) was a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist and a leader of the Efficiency Movement, most famous for The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.


  • The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.
    • Veblen (1908) The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View, University of California Chronicle
  • It is a matter of course and of absolute necessity to the conduct of business, that any discretionary businessman must be free to deal or not to deal in any given case; to limit or withhold the equipment under his control, without reservation. Business discretion and business strategy, in fact, has no other means by to work out its aims. So that, in effect, all business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to judicious use of sabotage.
    • Veblen (1917) An Inquiry Into the Nature of Peace, and the Terms of Its Perpetuation, p. 168
  • In point of substantial merit the law school belongs in the modern university no more than a school of fencing or dancing.
    • Veblen (1918) The Higher Learning in America. p. 155

"Why is economics not an evolutionary science?" (1898)


Thorstein B. Veblen (1898), "Why is economics not an evolutionary science?", Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 373/97. Reprinted in Veblen (1919)

  • Any evolutionary science... is a close-knit body of theory. It is a theory of a process, of an unfolding sequence... of cumulative causation. The great deserts of the evolutionist leaders... lie... in their having shown how this colorless impersonal sequence of cause and effect can be made use of for theory proper, by virtue of its cumulative character.
    • pp. 375-378; As cited in: Geoffrey M. Hodgson, "Veblen and darwinism." International review of sociology 14.3 (2004): 343-361
Theory of the leisure class, 1924
Main article: The Theory of the Leisure Class ; Here a selection of the more notable quotes:
  • The institution of a leisure class has emerged gradually during the transition from primitive savagery to barbarism; or more precisely, during the transition from a peaceable to a consistently warlike habit of life.
    • p. 5
  • In order to stand well in the eyes of the community, it is necessary to come up to a certain, somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth.
    • p. 19
  • In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men's eyes.
    • p. 23
  • From the ownership of women the concept of ownership extends itself to include the products of their industry, and so there arises the ownership of things as well as of persons.
    • p. 23
  • The possession of wealth confers honor; it is an invidious distinction.
    • p. 26
  • However widely, or equally, or "fairly", it may be distributed, no general increase of the community's wealth can make any approach to satiating this need, the ground of which is the desire of every one to excel every one else in the accumulation of goods.
    • p. 32
  • While the proximate ground of discrimination may be of another kind, still the pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time.
    • p. 51
  • The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master's ability to pay.
    • p. 62
  • In the modern industrial communities... the apparatus of living has grown so elaborate and cumbrous... that the consumers of these things cannot make way with them in the required manner without help.
    • p. 65-66
  • The latter-day outcome of this evolution of an archaic institution, the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the man... has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces. But she still quite unmistakably remains his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant.
    • p. 83
  • In modern civilized communities... the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum.
    • p. 84
  • Leisure held the first place at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above wasteful consumption of goods... From that point onward, consumption has gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds the primacy.
    • p. 92
  • It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life.
    • p. 99
  • It is much more difficult to recede from a scale of expenditure once adopted than it is to extend the accustomed scale in response to an accession of wealth.
    • p. 102
  • In the rare cases where it occurs, a failure to increase one's visible consumption when the means for an increase are at hand is felt in popular apprehension to call for explanation, and unworthy motives of miserliness are imputed.
    • p. 103
  • A standard of living is of the nature of habit. acts almost solely to prevent recession from a scale of conspicuous expenditure that has once become habitual.
    • p. 106
  • The need of conspicuous waste... stands ready to absorb any increase in the community's industrial efficiency or output of goods.
    • p. 110
  • As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labor, the energies of the industrious members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous expenditure, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace.
    • p. 111
  • The domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers.
    • p. 112
  • The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance than the small thief of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law.
    • p. 117
  • In the priestly life of all anthropomorphic cults the marks of a vicarious consumption of time are visible.
    • p. 122
  • All ritual has a notable tendency to reduce itself to a rehearsal of formulas.
    • p. 122
  • There is probably no cult in which ideals of pecuniary merit have not been called in to supplement the ideals of ceremonial adequacy that guide men's conception of what is right in the matter of sacred apparatus.
    • p. 125
  • The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is... present as a constraining norm selectively shaping and sustaining our sense of what is beautiful.
    • p. 126
  • The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty.
    • p. 128
  • The walking stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer's hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure.
    • p. 148

The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904)


Thorstein B. Veblen (1904), The Theory of Business Enterprise, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons; (also available at wikisuorce)

  • In common with other men, the business man is moved by ideals of serviceability and an aspiration to make the way of life easier for his fellows... Motives of this kind detract from business efficiency, and an undue yielding to them on the part of business men is to be deprecated as an infirmity. Still, throughout men's dealings with one another and with the interests of the community there runs a sense of equity, fair dealing, and workmanlike integrity.
    • p. 41-42. as cited in: Geoffrey Hodgson (2004). The Evolution of Institutional Economics. p. 202
  • The sequence of the process involves both the one and the other, both the apparatus and the materials, in such intimate interaction that the process cannot be spoken of simply as an action of the apparatus upon the materials. It is not simply that the apparatus reshapes the materials; the materials reshape themselves by the help of the apparatus... The whole concert of industrial operations is to be taken as a machine process, made up of interlocking detail processes, rather than as a multiplicity of mechanical appliances each doing its particular work in severalty.
    • p. 6-7, The Machine Process
  • To make effective use of the modern system of communication in any way or all of its ramifications (streets, railways, steamship lines, telephone, telegraph, postal service, etc.), men are required to adapt their needs and their motions to the exigencies of the process whereby this civilized method of intercourse is carried into effect. The service is standardized, and therefore the use of it is standardized also... one's plans and projects must be conceived and worked out in terms of those standard units which the system imposes.
    • p. 13-14
  • The machine process pervades the modern life and dominates it in a mechanical sense. Its dominance is seen in the enforcement of precise mechanical measurements and adjustment and the reduction of all manner of things, purposes and acts, necessities, conveniences, and amenities of life, to standard units.
    • p. 306
  • Without much preliminary exposition and without feeling himself to be out of touch with his contemporaries, Darwin set to work to explain species in terms of the process out of which they have arisen, rather than out of the prime cause to which the distinction between them may he due.
    • p. 369
  • [Darwin’s] inquiry characteristically confines itself to the process of cumulative change. His results, as well as his specific determination of the factors at work in this process of cumulative change, have been questioned; perhaps they are open to all the criticisms levelled against them as well as a few more not thought of; but the scope and method given to scientific enquiry by Darwin and the generation whose spokesman he is has substantially not been questioned, except by that diminishing contingent of the faithful
    • p. 370
  • The current periodical press... is a vehicle for advertisements. ...Exceptions ...are official and minor propagandist periodicals, and, in an uncertain measure, scientific journals. ...The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers, and the tell them what they like to believe. ...His second duty is to see that nothing is said which may discountenance ...his advertisers. ...The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.
    • pp. 385-386
  • Systematic insincerity on the part of purveyors of information and leaders of opinion may be deplored by persons who stickle for truth and pin their hopes of social salvation on the spread of accurate information. ...[T]he insincerity is guided by a wish to avoid any lesion of the received preconceptions and prejudices. The insincerity of the newspapers and magazines seems, on the whole, to be of a conservative trend.
    • pp. 386-387
  • The periodical press is not only a purveyor of news, opinions, and admonitions; it also supplies the greater part of the literature currently read. ...The standards of excellence that govern this periodical literature... must in no way hamper the purposes of the advertisers. ...Taken in the aggregate, the literary output is designed to meet the tastes of that large body of people who are in the habit of buying freely. The successful magazine writers... follow the taste of the class to whom they speak... They must also conform to the fancies and prejudices of this class as regards the ideals—artistic, moral, religious, or social—for which they speak. The class... is that great body of people who are in moderately easy circumstances... the respectable middle class... of various shades of conservatism, affectation, and snobbery.
    • pp. 387-388
  • "Snobbery" is here used without disrespect, as a convenient term to denote the element of strain involved in the quest for gentility on the part of persons whose accustomed social standing is less high or less authentic than their aspirations.
    • p. 388, footnote 2.

"The Place of Science in Modern Civilization" (1906)


Frank H. Knight and Thorstein Veblen. "The Place of Science in Modern Civilization." (1906): 518-520.

  • A civilization which is dominated by this matter-of-fact insight must prevail against any cultural scheme that lacks this element. This characteristic of western civilization comes to a head in modern science, and finds its highest material expression in the technology of the machine industry.
    • p. 355

The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1914)


Thorstein Veblen (1914). The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. ; 2nd edition 1918

  • The means whereby this work of Nature is brought to its consummate issue are forces of Nature working under her Laws by the method of cause and effect. The principle, or "law," of causation is a metaphysical postulate; in the sense that such a fact as causation is unproved and unprovable. No man has ever observed a case of causation, as is a commonplace with the latterday psychologists.
    • p. 67
  • [H]ere and now, as always and everywhere, invention is the mother of necessity.
    • p. 314
  • Habituation to bargaining and to the competitive principles of business necessarily brings it about that pecuniary standards of efficiency invade (contaminate) the sense of workmanship; so that work, workmen, equipment and products come to be rated on a scale of money values, which has only a circuitous and often only a putative relation to their workmanlike efficiency or their serviceability. Those occupations and those aptitudes that yield good returns in terms of price are reputed valuable and commendable, — the accepted test of success, and even of serviceability, being the gains acquired. Workmanship comes to be confused with salesmanship, until tact, effrontery and prevarication have come to serve as a standard of efficiency, and unearned gain is accepted as the measure of productiveness.
    • p. 349

Absentee Ownership (1923)


Thorstein B. Veblen (1923), Absentee Ownership: Business Enterprise in Recent Times

  • Born in iniquity and conceived in sin, the spirit of nationalism has never ceased to bend human institutions to the service of dissension and distress.
    • p. 38
  • It is always sound business to take any obtainable net gain, at any cost and at any risk to the rest of the community.
    • p. 191

The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919)


Quotes about Thorstein Veblen

  • Veblen seemed to me less sure with regard to his understanding of market forces. He’s not entirely consistent. At times he recognizes a tendency towards equalization of rates of return in different industries. But at other times he seems blind to the theoretical issues.
    • Kenneth Arrow, "John R. Commons Award Paper: Thorstein Veblen as an Economic Theorist." The American Economist, 1975, 19(1), pp. 5-9.
  • Veblen ... was a masterless, recalcitrant man, and if we must group him somewhere in the American scene, it is with those most recalcitrant Americans, the Wobblies. On the edges of the higher learning, Veblen tried to live like a Wobbly. It was a strange place for such an attempt. The Wobblies were not learned, but they were, like Veblen, masterless men, and the only non-middle class movement of revolt in twentieth-century America. With his acute discontent and shyness of program Veblen was a sort of intellectual Wobbly.
    • C. Wright Mills, Introduction to 1953 edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class
  • If Veblen failed to develop an evolutionary methodology, he also failed to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory to explain in detail how institutions evolve in the cultural environment and what sorts of interaction occur between economic activity and institutional structures. Veblen was something of an intellectual butterfly, and he often lacked the patience to elaborate his ideas into a coherent system. But he teemed with fragmentary insights, and these can be pieced together to suggest the outlines of a Veblenian scheme of cultural evolution - what might be called a ‘pre-theory’ of cultural change.
    • Cynthia Eagle Russett, (1976) Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1865/1912, San Francisco, CA, W. H. Freeman. p. 153; as cited in Hodgson (2004; 357)
by Lewis Mumford
  • There is a political and financial vested interest in obsolete technical equipment: that underlying conflict between business interests and industrial interests, which Veblen analyzed with great acuteness in The Theory of Business Enterprise, is accentuated by the fact that vast amounts of capital are sunk in antiquated machines and burdensome utilities. Financial acquisitiveness which had originally seeded invention now furthers technical inertia [i.e., in the sense of resistance or drag]. ...Hence the continued design of automobiles in terms of superficial fashions, rather than with any readiness to take advantage of aerodynamic principles in building for comfort and speed and economy: hence the continued purchase of patent rights for improvements which are then quietly extirpated by the monopoly holding them.
    • Ch. V "The Neotechnic Phase," p. 266.
  • One might multiply... examples from many departments: they point to a fact about the machine that has not been generally recognized by those quaint apologists for machine-capitalism who look upon every expenditure of horsepower and every fresh piece of mechanical apparatus as an automatic net gain in efficiency. In the Instinct of Workmanship Veblen has indeed wondered whether the typewriter, the telephone, and the automobile, though creditable technological achievements "have not wasted more effort and substance than they have saved," whether they are not to be credited with an appreciable economic loss, because they have increased the pace and the volume of correspondence and communication and travel out of all proportion to the real need.
    • Ch. VI "Compensations and Reversions," pp.271-272.
  • We are now entering a phase of disassociation between capitalism and technics; and we begin to see with Thorstein Veblen that their respective interests, so far from being identical, are often at war, and that the human gains of technics have been forfeited by perversion in the interests of pecuniary economy. We see in addition that many of the special gains in productivity which capitalism took credit for were in reality due to quite different agents—collective thought, cooperative action, and the general habits of order—virtues which have no necessary connection with capitalist enterprise.
    • Ch. VIII "Orientation," pp.366-367.

See also

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