America · Capitalism · Christianity · economics · Luxury · money · The Great Gatsby · theology · Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen, The Great Gatsby, and the American Way

Earlier this week, I spent a significant amount of time dedicated to Ayn Rand and her thoughts on capitalism. I hope as I continue my way through her book that I can continue to post on some of her thoughts as they apply to this blog. Her major flaw that she seemed to see within capitalism was its unholy matrimony with politics and the state. Just as socialistic communism is a good idea in pure theory, the idea of capitalism seems good until the state begins mandating and regulating the economy so that some “win” and others “lose.” Any government that attempts to interfere with capitalism, argues Rand, will get in the way of the pure market structure that is supposed to keep the well oiled machine running smoothly. What are we as Christians supposed to do with such a statement? Are we to distrust the state or distrust the capitalistic system, or both?

One thing that we have not yet look at is the market anomalies within the “perfect” system of capitalism. Why do people consume at rates higher than they need to? Why do people sometimes go for the more lavish option when another option is just as good? Thorstein Veblen began noticing what he referred to as “conspicuous consumption” beginning to arise in nineteenth century Europe where middle to upper class citizens were buying things simply to show class and status. Because they had more money than they needed to simply subsist, they began to buy things they really didn’t need because certain items began a symbol of socioeconomic status. This begin to offset the “balance” of capitalism because people start doing things like building bigger houses simply because they can.

A good fictional example of this is found in The Great Gatsby. The main character Nick is living earlier in the 1920s and is living out in a rich area of New York City. Nick is introduced to a man who throws lavish parties named Gatsby. The long and short of it is, Gatsby simply has a lot of money and likes to throw huge extravagant parties, and it is, to an extent, a social symbol. There is a certain amount of mysterious surrounding him, but Nick, how is also the narrator says this about Gatsby:

“The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God-a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that-and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

In a kind of “self-created” identity, Gatsby has “invented” the person whom he wants to be. Because he has money he is able to sell this identity to those who share in this identity. What does this say about Gatsby’s business skills or his ability to make more money? It says nothing at all. The ideas behind the book are that this “conspicuous consumption” that takes place in the West Egg where Gatsby lives is a self-constructed “platonic conception.” None of these people really needed the things they had, but they still had them nonetheless. They could have lived in smaller houses, but they chose to live in bigger houses simply because they could. This is, in a nutshell, the idea behind conspicuous consumption—buying more than what you need simply because you can.

I have also written at length about the economic decisions that face Christians. How can we prophetically deal with conspicious consumption in a prophetic way with the people in our churches? In the American church, we sometimes forget to realize that economics and spirituality are always tied up in the same dimension. We should not try to seperate the two.

This leaves me with some major questions that I want to pursue in future posts. Perhaps my readers can give some feedback to help formulate my thoughts:

  1. Should Christians care about conspicious consumption?
  2. Is the church spending too much money on luxuries? If so, what in your mind constitutes a luxury?
  3. If Christianity is a viable option in America, should it endorse the capitalism of its nation? Why or why not? Make sure you understand the nature of capitalism before answering that question.

3 thoughts on “Thorstein Veblen, The Great Gatsby, and the American Way

  1. I have been planning on posting on this very topic. I think you presented the “dilemma?” My post(s) will deal more with the issue of limited government when it comes to social welfare (health care, social security, medicare, stimulus packages, etc.), but all are intrinsically linked to the topic of your blog; that is, essentially Christian interaction with government in alleviating the burdens of poverty.

    However, this is not just an “American” issue, and thus the pope issued a list of “new sins,” which actually aren’t new, the Vatican is just offering clarification.

    While many protestants immediately decide to judge anything “Catholic,” as heretical, I find this list refreshing and timely, and highly related to your blog post…I’ll give you a few:

    sin #5: Thou Shalt Not Contribute To Making Others Poor

    sin #6:Thou Shalt Not Store Up For Thyself Excessive Wealth (this sounds weird, but is just a reminder that retirement from work is not a retirement from social responsibility)

    sin #7: Thou Shalt Not Widen The Divide Between The Rich And The Poor

    I enjoyed this blog. I am subscribed!

  2. I am not a Christian, or religious in any way, but your analysis speaks to me in humanitarian terms. You raise some really interesting points and bring literature (one of my loves) to bear witness to the ideas … thank you for always being thoughtful. Keep doint what you do!

    T @

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