The Economist's Apprentice

In which a little girl confronts the world and battles the anti-humans.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Conspicuous Culture

Thorstein Veblen developed a theory of conspicuous consumption in chapter 4 of his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. This chapter is so poorly written it is astonshing that anyone has ever read it. Be that as it may, many people accept the principle that much consumption is for the purposes of display. People want nice things so that people see that they have nice things. To some extent, I believe that people consume high art for a similar purpose. How many people would read War and Peace, if they were not allowed to mention the fact. Attendence at art museums, symphony orchestras, and foreign films is no doubt increased by the desire to appear cultured.

Conspicuous consumption causes negative externalities to the extent that others feel they need to escalate their own consumption in the battle for status. In some circles, the same might occur with conspicuous culture. Material conspicuous consumption is difficult to identify, because things that are cool enough to inspire envy in your neighbors are probably cool enough that you would want them anyway. Reasonable people don't want the government discouraging people from having cool stuff.

The government can, however, improve society by reducing conspicuous culture. First, how do you identify conspicuous culture? Any culture that is provided by a non-profit or with government subsidies is a likely candidate. If culture can actually make a buck, it probably isn't 'conspicuous'. Without government subsidies and tax breaks, most opera houses and art museums would probably collapse.

Anyone that suggests the NEA be abolished opens themselves to being called a philistine. This posture no doubt feeds the attacker's sense of status in the same way that conspicuous culture does. How better to show a deep affinity for high culture than demand that others pay for it?


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