The Theory of the Leisure Class is Thorstein Veblen’s first and best-known book. In all his writings, he offers an approach to social commentary that tends to invert much of the conventional economic wisdom of his day. On the surface, his style of writing is flat and unemotional, and often pedantic. However, the cumulative effect results in powerful social criticism. He often casts his writings (certainly The Theory of the Leisure Class) in the mode of anthropological commentaries, drawing on illustrations from many times and places beyond his own (but without explicit source references). He also stresses the evolutionary character of social institutions, in a somewhat Darwinian mode.

Veblen does not directly identify the leisure class with the rich, but the overlap is substantial. Where class distinctions have been strongly observed, he argues, the upper classes do not engage in “industrial occupations”—the most basic types of useful work. Instead, their occupations—which include government employ, warfare, religion, and sports—are considered highly honorable. The most honorable activities tend to involve what Veblen calls exploit—physical prowess, as in hunting or warfare or sports, or exercising authority over others, as in civic leadership. Traditionally, these honorable activities have been associated with men. Contrasting activities—drudgery—tend to be associated with women.

Conventional economics regards consumption as the goal of productive effort, particularly in accumulating wealth. For most people, though, the goal is to achieve “the invidious distinction attaching to wealth.” Each person is in competition with others. Although one individual may gain self-esteem by rising on the social scale, it is not possible for everyone to do so simultaneously. To rise socially requires not merely possessing wealth and power but also making this condition known to the others by displaying it. Here, leisure enters the analysis. Engagement in productive labor marks a person as less wealthy, thus less worthy.

The leisure that serves as a marker in social competition does not connote idleness, merely the lack of productivity. Appropriate leisure activities include an exaggerated attention to styles of clothing, furniture, food, and social events. Veblen’s scorn for practitioners of social snobbery rises close to the surface in these passages.

Interwoven through the text are Veblen’s many observations about the status of women. He notes that marriage can involve “ownership” by the man, and “conspicuous leisure,” a term Veblen coined, is often demonstrated by the role and activities of the wife. Beyond the wife’s role is a hierarchical range of domestic servants. Needless to say, for the wife to have a productive job outside the home would contradict a family’s efforts to project a leisure-class existence. In Veblen’s time, the prejudice against women’s employment extended far down the socioeconomic scale, including much of “keeping house,” which was considered unproductive, even by Veblen. Also, his exposition lacks perspective on child raising.

At this point in the book, Veblen introduces his most celebrated concept: conspicuous consumption (he also coined the phrase). A large part of consumption reflects the social goal of impressing others, particularly with one’s wealth, power, and superiority. Economist Robert Frank has elaborated on this with abundant descriptive detail. He refers to “positional goods”—the luxury car, the “McMansion”—which have become particularly eligible markers in competition for social status and for...

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Adil, Mouhammed H. An Introduction to Thorstein Veblen’s Economic Theory. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. Examines Veblen’s theories of business cycles and growth, and his other ideas about economics.

Dorfman, Joseph. Thorstein Veblen and His America. 1934. 7th ed. Clifton, N.J.: A. M. Kelley, 1972. The definitive study of Veblen’s life and work by an economist-historian. Includes a valuable discussion of the historical context of Veblen’s writing. Also includes corrections and updated appendixes.

Edgell, Stephen. Veblen In Perspective: His Life and Thought. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. Focuses on Veblen’s ideas about marginality, ethnicity, the culture of the leisure class, and other subjects. A good place to start.

Harris, Abram L. “Veblen and the Social Phenomenon of Capitalism.” American Economic Review 61, no. 2 (May, 1951). A succinct critique of Veblen’s naive remarks on anthropology and his neglect of the contributions of business toward achieving high productivity. A dated but still helpful article.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. 7th ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. In this justly popular history of economic thought, chapter 8, “The Savage Society of Thorstein Veblen,” gives high praise to its subject.

Lerner, Max, ed. The Portable Veblen. 1948. Reprint. New York: Viking Press, 1968. This classic collection includes a variety of Veblen’s writings and an enthusiastic review of his ideas by the editor, Max Lerner. This comprehensive introduction is considered one of the most perceptive analyses of Veblen in print.

Reisman, David. Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation. 1953. Reprint. New York: Seabury Press, 1975. Sociologist Reisman, who was much influenced by Veblen’s emphasis on peer pressure and “other-directedness,” elaborates on these and other issues in this critical study of Veblen’s work.

Spindler, Michael. Veblen and Modern America: Revolution Iconoclast. Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2002. Describes Veblen’s major ideas and examines his influence as an economist, a sociologist, and an analyst and critic of modern American culture.