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Conspicuous Consumption and Darwin's Critical Sexual Selection Dynamic That Thorstein Veblen Missed

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  • Jon D. Wisman

Abstract

Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption is one of his most powerful contributions to social science. Conspicuous consumption is undertaken in an attempt to maintain or increase social standing. But why do humans seek to acquire status through their consumption practices? Or more fundamentally, why do they seek status? Veblen does not present it as grounded in an instinct such as his instincts of parental bent, workmanship or idle curiosity, although he claims that "the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper… a pervading trait of human nature." But why? Had he read Darwin, or read him more carefully, he would have picked up on Darwin's concept of sexual selection and recognized it as the driving force behind conspicuous consumption as well as much other behavior intended to favorably impress others, if not the driving force behind all of his instincts. Sexual selection is a form of natural selection that works through mate selection as opposed to physical survival. How much an individual can consume signals an ability to command resources essential for successfully raising children. This article adds the Darwinian depth that Veblen missed to his important concept of conspicuous consumption, and in doing so adds clarity to humanity's prospects.

Suggested Citation

  • Jon D. Wisman, 2016. "Conspicuous Consumption and Darwin's Critical Sexual Selection Dynamic That Thorstein Veblen Missed," Working Papers 2016-03, American University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2016-03
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Jon D. Wisman & Matthew E. Davis, 2013. "Degraded Work, Declining Community, Rising Inequality, and the Transformation of the Protestant Ethic in America: 1870–1930," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 72(5), pages 1075-1105, November.
    2. Robert H. Frank, 2005. "Positional Externalities Cause Large and Preventable Welfare Losses," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(2), pages 137-141, May.
    3. David Wilson & John Gowdy, 2015. "Human ultrasociality and the invisible hand: foundational developments in evolutionary science alter a foundational concept in economics," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 17(1), pages 37-52, April.
    4. Taylor, Lance, 2011. "Maynard's Revenge: The Collapse of Free Market Macroeconomics," Economics Books, Harvard University Press, number 9780674050464, December.
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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Darwin; sexual selection; status; inequality; evolution;

    JEL classification:

    • B15 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary
    • B52 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Current Heterodox Approaches - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary
    • D11 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Theory
    • P47 - Economic Systems - - Other Economic Systems - - - Performance and Prospects

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