Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/Scientific Literature

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Scientific Literature.


The Theory of the Leisure Class[1] of Mr. Thorstein Veblen is primarily an inquiry into the place and value of the leisure class as an economic factor in modern life. Hardly less attention, however, is given to the origin and line of derivation of the institution, and to features of social life not commonly classed as economic, into the very heart of some of which the study goes. The institution of the leisure class, which is defined generally as that class whose occupation is not industrial, is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture, as in feudal Europe or feudal Japan. Whichever way we go from this point it is modified. Its origin appears at a very early stage in history, and appears in the germ in the savage division of the occupations of men and women. The women carried on the industries, and the men went to the hunt or to war—occupations with which the idea of prowess or exploit was associated, giving the stamp of aristocracy. In the highest development of this distinction, the nonindustrial upper-class occupations may be roughly comprised under the heads of government, warfare, religious observances, and sports. In the sequence of cultural evolution the emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership, ownership of women being one of the most conspicuous forms in earlier times, then ownership of property and its symbols. Among the signs of wealth are conspicuous leisure, which includes social distinction and functions and conspicuous consumption, or the possession of fine things not necessaries, and plenty of them. These lead to the setting up of a pecuniary standard of living and pecuniary canons of taste, and the adoption of dress as an expression of the pecuniary culture. In the chapter on Industrial Exemption and Conservatism we are introduced to the reason of conventionalism and of its power. "The fact that the usages, actions, and views of the well-to-do leisure class acquire the character of a prescriptive canon of conduct for the rest of society gives added weight and reach to the conservative influence of that class. It makes it incumbent upon all respectable people to follow their lead." Hence it exerts a retarding influence on social development, stiffening the resistance of all other classes against innovation. Further, the code of proprieties in vogue at any given time or in any society has the character of an organic whole, and any important infringement upon it is likely to derange it. This conservative quality goes so far as to tend toward spiritual survival and reversion. The idea of prowess survives in our barbaric admiration of military exploits, in the taste for sports, and in the gambling tendency, which is based on belief in luck and is enhanced by the desire to triumph at the expense of another. A connection is traced between the admiration of prowess and the cultivation of the devotional spirit which, joined with the fondness for display, leads all worshipers eventually to elaboration of rituals. A further development, classed as Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interest, is that of beneficences. The Higher Learning was primarily the exclusive privilege of the leisure class, and has still attached to it a mass of ritual in the shape of paraphernalia, ceremonies, degrees, and privileges which grow more elaborate as the college and the community become richer. Devotion to classical learning, which is practically useless, is a form of "conspicuous leisure" and "conspicuous expenditure," but now encounters a rival in athletics, which is equally useless and conspicuous and more costly.

The American Economic Association, at its meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1897, authorized the appointment of a committee to inquire into the scope and method of the eleventh census, with a view of determining what ought to be attempted in the twelfth. In order to make an adequate review of the eleventh census this committee invited a certain number of critical articles on particular portions of the work; and further, in order to discover what might seem weak points in the work and what inquiries it might seem desirable to elaborate in the twelfth census, addressed a circular letter of questions to all the members of the association. Only about sixty replies were received to the questions, but a generous response was made to the invitations to contribute reviews, the result of which is a series of papers by independent authors upon specific topics which are regarded as constituting a very valuable commentary on the Federal census and on statistical methods in general. These criticisms are now embodied in a book[2] of more than five hundred pages, containing twenty essays by authors each of whom is specially interested in the particular topic of which he treats. These articles include a general review of the statistics of population, by Walter F. Wilcox, and special articles on the negro population, by W. Z. Ripley; the North American Indians, by Franz Boas; Age, Sex, Dwellings, and Families, and Urban Population, by George K. Holmes; Illiteracy and Educational Statistics, by Davis R. Dewey; Statistics of Occupation, by Richard Mayo-Smith; Various Aspects of the Vital and Social Statistics, by Cressy L. Wilbur, Irving Fisher, Roland P. Falkner, and Samuel M. Lindsay; of Agriculture and Farms, by N. I. Stone and David Kelley; Transportation, by Emery R. Johnson and Walter E. Weyl; Manufactures, by S. N. D. North, William M. Stewart, Worthington C. Ford, and Charles J. Bullock; Wealth, Debt, and Taxation, by Carl C. Plehn; Municipal Finance, by Henry B. Gardner; and the Scope and Method of the Twelfth Census, by William C. Hunt. A number of general conclusions are pointed out by the committee as deducible from the papers contributed by these writers. The criticism throughout touches not so much the accuracy of the census as the treatment of the data and the lack of continuity from census to census—both defects believed to be largely due to the insufficient time allowed by law for preparing plans and schedules. The work of the census is believed to be seriously impeded by the number and variety of the investigations ordered, in consequence of which fundamental inquiries can not receive attention. A number of subordinate inquiries might advantageously be transferred to established bureaus or departments under whose scope they would properly fall, and some of which already publish annual volumes of kindred statistics. Among classes of defects or weaknesses in method pointed out in the criticisms are a lack of comparability in data from census to census, lack of co-ordination, certain specified faults in method, and faults in the textual analysis of the figures. A summary of the answers received to the circular letter of questions is appended, particularly of the answers to the request to suggest what special information might be furnished by the twelfth census which is not in the eleventh. Many of the writers point to the desirability of a permanent census bureau. The committee has a right to congratulate itself, as it does, "upon this noteworthy collection of papers—the result of the scientific zeal and effort of so many men."

  1. The Theory of the Leisure Class. An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. By Thorstein Veblen. New York: The Macmillan Company. Pp. 400. Price, $2.
  2. The Federal Census. Critical Essays by Members of the American Economic Association, collected and edited by a Special Committee. Published for the American Economic Association by the Macmillan Company, New York. Pp. 516. Price, $1; cloth, $2.50.