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Conspicuous Reduction

March 26th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Todd Zywicki at Volokh links a recent Wall Street Journal article on “Conspicuous Virtue,” advanced the modern analogue of Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. The article itself is behind the subscription wall, but Zywicki excerpts enough of the core argument to make clear that it’s an instance of the “unmasking” genre, where the putatively high-minded motives of this or that group are exposed as mere expressions of self-interest after all. While this is probably accurate often enough, one suspects that the function this sort of debunking serves is, for the most part, to assure us all that we’re not somehow falling short morally, that there’s no reason to consider whether we ourselves ought to be making such minor changes in how we live, since the folks who’ve already done so are no better than us—indeed, possibly worse, since they’re engaged in some kind of disingenous moral preening.

The thing is, the author focuses on an example signally ill-suited to prove his thesis: Organic or cage-free or otherwise more humanely produced food products, of the kind Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s specialize in. The problem, if you’re trying to make an argument that these are cases of consumption for display, of purchasing choices meant to broadcast one’s virtue to one’s peers, is that there are few commodities whose provenance is less clear to third parties (once purchased) than food. Mostly, it’s consumed at home alone. And even if you’re throwing a dinner party, most of us don’t make a point of announcing the precise origins of the eggs in our cake or the beef in our Stroganoff. If you want to make a show of your great ethical sensitivity, the grocery store seems a poor place to do it.

There is, incidentally, a certain circularity to this kind of argument—not in any discrete case, but as a general account of people’s behavior. For if I buy the cruelty-free beef only in hopes of advertising my virtue to others, I need at least to suppose that (some of) the others genuinely regard it as virtuous to buy cruelty-free beef. But those people, at least, must then think it’s an inherently good thing to do, not just a good way of showing off.

Tags: Sociology



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 steveintheknow // Mar 26, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Well he did bring up the Prius.

    Anyway you might be wrong on the status symbol of food. Here’s my thoughts…

    I once had this friend that upon discussing the merits of one thing or another, say a restaurant, would always agree or inject his opinion as a regular consumer of said thing. However, upon further discussion would later reveal himself to be lying, usually by getting one fact or another obviously wrong to those of us who knew better. We figured he did this to feel like he fit in, or something. Kind of like someone who claims to really like a band that they really know nothing about because that band is a corner stone of some genres identity, and they really wanted to be “punk”, or whatever.

    Anyway, what’s my point? Well I guess its that even when it comes to the consumption of certain things that seem completely private or opaque to others, they wind up being revealed in other ways. Food for instance is (might be?) one of those things. I don’t know how much you cook, but for those of us who do, and really enjoy it, can tell you that we often find great companionship in discussing it with fellow cooks. This includes everything from recipes to certain products, prices, and stores. If you really love cooking vegetarian, then you will go to great lengths to discuss your experiences of vegetarian cooking and son on. The same would go for grilling, or cocktail making, or whatever. Anyway my point is if you want to claim certain knowledge of such a thing it is often helpful to actually have the experience – (and of course it is the “claim” that is conspicuous right?). I would assume this would apply to the “morally conscious” grocery shopper as well. They may not talk about it at the dinner party with everyone there, most of who might not care anyway. But they certainly will reveal their consumption patterns to those of like mind that are also “in the club”.

  • 2 LP // Mar 26, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    “And even if you’re throwing a dinner party, most of us don’t make a point of announcing the precise origins of the eggs in our cake or the beef in our Stroganoff.”

    You’d be surprised, Julian. It maybe hasn’t hit the east coast yet, but here in Colorado and on the west coast, this is a pretty common topic of mealtime conversation. And not just amongst the hippies anymore, but in regular offices, restaurants, etc. However, I think ‘conspicuous virtue’ only accounts for part of this; I think it’s also about an emerging eco-snobbery, where purchasers of organic/hormone-free/cage-free/etc. foods assert that these foods taste better, and look disdainfully on those who can’t tell the difference. Along these lines, here’s a disturbing thought: biodynamically-grown wine, which is a hot topic in Europe, California and recently in Colorado. This has the potential to bring the eco-snobs together with the wine snobs, already the most pretentious in the world. No good can come of this.

  • 3 shecky // Mar 27, 2007 at 12:59 am

    Trader Joe’s? The wine snob home of Two Buck Chuck? How ’bout the great place to find tasty packaged foods for cheap?

    Conspicuous virtue works both ways. Folks love bragging on the savings found at Walmart and Big Lots. One man’s virtue is another’s folly.

  • 4 Andy D // Mar 27, 2007 at 10:49 am

    It seems like the importance of signaling here could be assessed experimentally by contrasting sales of a product in a lab setting in which the virtue or lack thereof was made conspicuous and invisible in different experimental groups.

    This could then be contrasted with results of anonymous surveys asking consumers to analyze their own motivations in virtuous consumption. By the discrepancy between the results of the two methods we could get some idea of the amount of consumers’ self-deception. (Maybe the ‘unmasking’ research you describe has this flavor, but I’m not versed in it and haven’t read the gated article.)

    Ulltimately, though, I would want to introduce more complex hypotheses. For instance, introspecting my own experiences in facing virtue-laden choices, I believe signaling plays a role, BUT:

    part of the motivation lies in taking a visible stand that will constrain my future decisions by the expectations formed in others and force these decisions more virtuous;

    part lies in setting an example to others;

    part lies in signaling *to myself* that virtue matters and can shape my own behavior. That is, the virtuous action is not necessarily decomposable into sincere and egoistic components, but has an aspect of self-training for further, larger and more sincere, virtuous actions.

    How to bring these motivational factors out experimentally (or, perhaps, deflate them as lies or self-deception) seems like an interesting question.

  • 5 FinFangFoom // Mar 27, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Are you completely unfamiliar with foodies, Julian? Yuppiness and quasi-yuppiness for urban sophisticates taking the form of heightened interest in the provenance of one’s food seems inescapable to me. It isn’t something that you can see, but when foodies entertain, they’ll talk about where they buy their food.