[ Tiffany Peacock. Image: Oliver Hammond ]

Conspicuous leisure

Veblen recognizes that in order to reap the esteem that comes from the position of wealth, individuals must signal that wealth to society. Traditionally one of the primary ways that the upper classes do this by abstaining from productive work, to demonstrate that they can afford to do so.

But even not working can be hard work, Veblen notes with mock sympathy, because one has to do so in a way that can be readily observed:

Time is consumed non-productively...as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life. For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent -- in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of tangible, lasting products of the labour performed for the gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his employ.

Thorstein Veblen (1899; Ch.3)

Not just any sort of leisure is sufficiently observable; one needs to invent in activities that produce "immaterial evidence of past leisure" so that an observer knows not only that one is unproductive now, but that he has been unproductive for a long time in the past as well. Studying classical languages, amatuer participation in the arts, academic exercises of the least practical kinds, or sporting prowess all serve this purpose admirably. Proper manners, refined aesthetics, and other aspects of "good breeding" operate similarly.

Unfortunately for those best disposed to consume leisure conspicuously, the 24-hour day imposes a hard limit on the amount of leisure time than any single individual can consume. But fortunately for those wealthy individuals, Veblen points out, a rich man can always hire servants to engage in vicarious leisure on his behalf. Thus the wealthy may employ numerous servants in roles that are largely ceremonial; these need not be enjoyable to the servants in order to classify as leisure in the sense of being fully unproductive.