Frank’s Luxury Fever


Jason Collins


January 28, 2012

Following my reading of Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy, I decided to read some of Frank’s back catalogue. I started with Luxury Fever: Weighing the Cost of Excess, which was first released in 1999.

I quickly realised that The Darwin Economy is not so much a new book, but rather a refinement of Luxury Fever, updated for the events of the last 10 years and with a few of the weaker arguments replaced or improved.

Take the central theme of both books - that people over-consume goods where there is competition for relative rank. In Luxury Fever, Frank contrasts conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption, and argues that conspicuous consumption triggers an arms race in that sphere. In The Darwin Economy, the focus is more on positional and non-positional goods. This is a sensible change, as many positional goods, such as housing in a good school district, may not be chosen purely for conspicuous consumption purposes.

Luxury Fever also has many of the same patterns of The Darwin Economy, such as the tendency to include chapters that do not quite fit the theme but reflect Frank’s broader philosophy. The chapter suggesting a program of public employment instead of unemployment benefits is one of them. I noted before that Frank could have made his core point in The Darwin Economy in an essay, and after reading Luxury Fever, my view on this has been confirmed.

Luxury Fever even contains the insight that underpins the theme of The Darwin Economy - that the description of competition by Charles Darwin may be more accurate in many instances than that of Adam Smith (or more precisely, many modern interpretations of Smith).

I expect that if I had read Luxury Fever 10 years ago, it would have been a revelation to me. Today, I suggest that you go for the new and improved.