Ultimately, though, I find his case unconvincing. Moreover, his own reasoning leads to conclusions that even he finds distasteful, and he has yet to find a way out of those unfortunate conclusions. Frank often misstates the libertarian viewpoint, sometimes in ways that matter for his argument. Along the way he does make points–mainly tangential to his main argument–that are quite eloquently and logically argued. At the same time, he stumbles on a number of issues where he goes beyond his
own expertise.

This is from my just-released review of Robert Frank’s book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.

In one key part of my review, I point out that he has not taken up the challenge I posed to his view of the world in my 2007 article on his work:

What follows from this competition for positional goods? For Frank, it is a “progressive consumption tax”–that is, a tax on all income consumed with higher tax rates for higher amounts of consumption. Frank argues, as he did in earlier work, that such a tax would require “no real sacrifice” from wealthy people because they would maintain their relative positions and that’s what matters to them. I find it implausible that the wealthy would not care about being made poorer, but there’s an easy test, one I proposed in my 2007 article: let wealthy people, and only wealthy people, vote on the proposal to tax them more. If Frank is right that there is “no real sacrifice,” then he would have to predict that well over 90 percent of wealthy people would vote for higher taxes on themselves. Yet Frank nowhere has proposed such a vote. It’s strange that someone who even thinks about having elephant seals vote, understanding that–for obvious reasons–they can’t, doesn’t even consider letting people vote even though they can. Is it possible that Frank has real doubts about his own theory?

Two other highlights:

Frank states that “school quality is an inherently relative concept.” In other words, what matters to parents, according to Frank, is not the absolute quality of the school, but how good it is relative to other schools. But if that’s so, then one obvious way to save resources, so that people can have more non-positional goods, is for the government to spend less on schools. Just as a progressive consumption tax would, in Frank’s view, make no rich people worse off, a 50 percent cut in school funding should make no students worse off. Yet Frank never considers cutting government spending on schools.


In his reply to Friedman, Frank covers important new ground that I could not find in his book. He writes, “All available evidence suggests that positional concerns are largely local in nature.” But if that’s so, then, even within Frank’s own framework in which relative position matters a lot, the solutions ought to be local, not nationwide. Oops, there goes the federal progressive consumption tax.