David R. Henderson  

David Friedman on Robert Frank

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I posted a few days ago on the debate between David Friedman and Robert Frank about income distribution. Since then, Robert Frank has replied to David Friedman and David Friedman then replied to Frank. Well worth reading for two reasons. First, the tone and decorum that both Friedman and Frank demonstrate is an admirable model for debate. Second, David homes in on the points about relative vs. absolute well-being and I think he wins this one. One excerpt:

He [Frank] has now twice--in his most recent post and the one that preceded it--first agreed that what matters in health care is the absolute level and then proceeded to put his argument in terms of the relative level, not how good the health care is that someone can get but whether or not he can get "the best" health care.
Also, one of the ways of judging a debate is by what arguments the person being debated against leaves unanswered. Frank had made quite a strong charge against Friedman, writing:
David also believes that a society in which people were concerned about relative position would oppose policies aimed at reducing poverty. ... He goes on to suggest that my argument implies that "the rich ought to be in favor of grinding down the poor..." These remarks betray a curiously dark conception of human nature.
David never disputed that it was a dark conception of human nature. His point was that it was Frank's, not Friedman's conception. Frank does not address that in his response.

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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Alex J. writes:

Frank, and those like him who are concerned about relative consumption, studiously avoid using the word "envy". They'd like to think of themselves as noble Robin Hoods, not green with envy pullers-down.

Don writes:

True, except that Robin Hood led a tax revolt.

Tom West writes:

Relative consumption is more subtle and the well-being vs income differential is definitely not linear.

Generalizing, we all want to be a *little* better off than our peers, but we don't want to be massively better off, because that makes us feel guilty about how we are doing.

There is almost no-one who is happy to see poor people. It makes them feel worse about what they have and worried that the poor have less of a stake in society as it currently stands.

So, I think they're *both* wrong. Relative well-being is a real problem AND it doesn't necessarily translate as a desire to grind down the poor.

Douglass Holmes writes:

David, it would probably violate the civility of this site to ask why anyone takes Robert Frank seriously. I would suggest that you have students read his articles and find all the unsupported assumptions in them, but I would hope that would be too easy for students at the Naval Post Graduate School.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Douglass Holmes,
I take him seriously for two reasons:
1. Other people do and I think his arguments should be responded to.
2. I don't know him but when I hear people talk about him and read what his students say about him, he sounds like quite a good teacher. My own view is that you can't be a really good teacher unless you're willing to admit mistakes. I think he's made some key mistakes and so it's important to point them out. Also, my guess is that he has students who have learned a lot from him and many of them might be open to rethinking their views to the extent they've agreed with him on this.
BTW, thanks for your compliment about my students.

Matt C writes:

I read Frank's The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide and I liked it. I don't agree with his left-ish leanings, and I thought his arguments sometimes missed the point, but overall I thought his views were a) reasonably argued in terms of economics, and b) honestly argued without deliberate sophisms or fallacies.

If anyone knows of a left-ish economist they like better, I'd be interested in knowing about that person.

David Friedman writes:

The fundamental reason that I respect Robert Frank is that, in his original work on the implication of including a concern with relative position into the utility function, he took an important feature of reality that is routinely ignored in economic theory and showed how it could be incorporated in conventional economics and what its implications were. That sort of contribution to economic understanding impresses me a great deal more than the average journal article or book. That makes me take him seriously even when, as in our current exchange, I find his arguments incoherent and his overall position indefensible, at least by him.

For another leftish economist, and a very smart one, I offer Earl Thompson at UCLA. I've learned from both men--gotten ideas I find useful.

Douglass Holmes writes:

I think I confused Robert Frank with Thomas Frank. I still find that Robert Frank's writings contain some unjustified assumptions, but I must give him credit for this: He explains his ideas carefully and he seems to have the heart of a teacher. Thanks to both Davids for your serious responses to my comment.

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