Veblen on Interpreting Veblen
Wilson, Matthew C., Journal of Economic Issues
Different interpretations of Thorstein Veblen's work are often at odds with one another, giving rise to controversy. At times such controversy can become quite intense. When these disputes escalate, we often find ourselves wishing we could say to the disputants: Gee, it's funny you should say that, because I have Mr. Veblen right here. In an ideal world, Veblen would emerge out of nowhere, like Marshall McLuhan in the film Annie Hall, and set the record straight once and for all.
Unfortunately, life is not like that. However, we do have the next best thing. In an often-neglected article, Veblen provides his own written account of how he himself wants to be interpreted. It is only by chance that we have this hermeneutic gem, because, according to Veblen, in the year following publication of The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen  1994), he took a temporary leave of absence from his position as editor of The Journal of Political Economy. In his absence, the journal published a lengthy critique by John Cummings (1899). Veblen begins his response to Cummings by saying that the critique contains a number of misinterpretations, which he would have preferred to resolve through private correspondence. Had he done that, however, Veblen's comments on interpreting Veblen might have been lost to us or, at any rate, would not have been readily accessible.
As it stands, Mr. Cummings's critique was published, and Veblen felt obliged to honor the critique with a lengthy response. In effect, the turn of events bequeathed to us an important guide to how Veblen himself wanted to be interpreted. It also provided us with valuable insights into his methodological thinking.
In this regard, Veblen's response to his critic bears special significance and is worth discussing on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth. As I discuss below, Cummings interpreted Veblen's book as a radical critique, which implied that workers do not get what they deserve and that capitalists do not deserve what they get. In effect, this interpretation regards Veblen's work as a continuation of Marxist ideology. Ironically, one occasionally hears echoes of this interpretation among Veblen's own followers today, albeit not in the form of a criticism.
In his response to Cummings, Veblen says that on each of its major headings his critique had been "directed rather against the apparent than against the intended drift of the argument set forth in the volume" (Veblen 1899, 106). However, Veblen readily acknowledges that "what has proved to be obscure to so acute a critic as Mr. Cummings may be expected to offer at least as great difficulties to others who may have the patience to read the book" (107).
Due to space constraints, I will not discuss all aspects of the critique or Veblen's response. In what follows, I will focus on two key aspects. These are: (1) the critique/ response regarding Veblen's alleged implication that leisure class incomes are not justified; and (2) the critique/response regarding Veblen's theory of waste.
The Just Desserts of the Leisure Class
Veblen's writing style is, of course, famously sardonic. At times he ridicules leisure class institutions and members. Perhaps not too surprisingly, he has sometimes been interpreted as having put forward a radical critique of capitalism, which denies the equity of unequal distributions of wealth and income. This is how Mr. Cummings interpreted Veblen. Referring to Veblen's theory, he says: "The accumulation at one end [by captains of industry] is conceived to be at the expense of the other end in the sense that the other end [the workers] would have more if it had its just deserts [sic]" (Cummings 1899, 440). Cummings's critique then develops a lengthy exposition refuting this implication.
In his response to Cummings, Veblen says: "This discussion [of just desserts] is directed to a point not touched upon in my inquiry. …