Should public policy respond to positional externalities?
AbstractA nice suit is one that compares favorably with those worn by others in the same local environment. More generally, a positional good is one whose utility depends strongly on how it compares with others in the same category.1 A positional externality occurs when new purchases alter the relevant context within which an existing positional good is evaluated.2 For example, if some job candidates begin wearing expensive custom-tailored suits, a side effect of their action is that other candidates become less likely to make favorable impressions on interviewers. From any individual job seeker's point of view, the best response might be to match the higher expenditures of others, lest her chances of landing the job fall. But this outcome may be inefficient, since when all spend more, each candidate's probability of success remains unchanged. All may agree that some form of collective restraint on expenditure would be useful. In such cases, however, it is often impractical to negotiate private solutions. Do positional externalities then become legitimate objects of public policy concern? In attempting to answer this question, I employ the classical libertarian criterion put forth by John Stuart Mill3, who wrote the state may not legitimately constrain any citizen's freedom of action except to prevent harm to others. I argue that many positional externalities appear to meet Mill's test, causing not just negative feelings but also large and tangible economic costs to others who are ill-equipped to avoid them. I also discuss an unintrusive policy remedy for positional externalities, one modeled after the use of effluent charges to curb environmental pollution. The paper is organized as follows. Section 1 notes the deep similarity between the conditions that give rise to positional arms races and those that give rise to conventional military arms races. Section 2 follows with a review of evidence concerning the strength of concerns about relative position. Section 3 describes some of the tangible economic costs that people experience as a result of positional externalities arising from such concerns. Section 4 takes up the question of whether collective action directed against positional externalities is consistent with respect for individual rights. Section 5 describes how a progressive consumption tax could neutralize many of the most costly effects of positional externalities.
Download InfoIf you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.
As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version under "Related research" (further below) or search for a different version of it.
Bibliographic InfoArticle provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Public Economics.
Volume (Year): 92 (2008)
Issue (Month): 8-9 (August)
Contact details of provider:
Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/inca/505578
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:
- Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1987. "Diamonds Are a Government's Best Friend: Burden-Free Taxes on Goods Valued for Their Values," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(1), pages 186-91, March.
- Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
- Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, .
"Satisfaction and Comparison Income,"
Economics Discussion Papers
419, University of Essex, Department of Economics.
- Ed Hopkins & Tatiana Kornienko, 2004.
"Running to Keep in the Same Place: Consumer Choice as a Game of Status,"
American Economic Review,
American Economic Association, vol. 94(4), pages 1085-1107, September.
- Ed Hopkins & Tatiana Kornienko, 2004. "Running to Keep in the Same Place: Consumer Choice as a Game of Status," ESE Discussion Papers 92, Edinburgh School of Economics, University of Edinburgh.
- J. Solnick, Sara & Hemenway, David, 1998. "Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 37(3), pages 373-383, November.
- Daniel Kahneman & Alan B. Krueger & David Schkade & Norbert Schwarz & Arthur A. Stone, 2006. "Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion," Working Papers 77, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Center for Economic Policy Studies..
- Caroline Hoxby, 2000. "Peer Effects in the Classroom: Learning from Gender and Race Variation," NBER Working Papers 7867, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
- Kerwin Kofi Charles & Erik Hurst & Nikolai Roussanov, 2007.
"Conspicuous Consumption and Race,"
NBER Working Papers
13392, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
- Frank, Robert H, 1985. "The Demand for Unobservable and Other Nonpositional Goods," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 101-16, March.
- Sara J. Solnick & David Hemenway, 2005. "Are Positional Concerns Stronger in Some Domains than in Others?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(2), pages 147-151, May.
- Alpizar, Francisco & Carlsson, Fredrik & Johansson-Stenman, Olof, 2005.
"How much do we care about absolute versus relative income and consumption?,"
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization,
Elsevier, vol. 56(3), pages 405-421, March.
- Alpizar, Francisco & Carlsson, Fredrik & Johansson-Stenman, Olof, 2001. "How Much Do We Care About Absolute Versus Relative Income and Consumption?," Working Papers in Economics 63, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics.
- Ireland, Norman J., 1998. "Status-seeking, income taxation and efficiency," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(1), pages 99-113, October.
- Boskin, Michael J & Sheshinski, Eytan, 1978. "Optimal Redistributive Taxation when Individual Welfare Depends upon Relative Income," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 92(4), pages 589-601, November.
- Ed Diener & Ed Sandvik & Larry Seidlitz & Marissa Diener, 1993. "The relationship between income and subjective well-being: Relative or absolute?," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 28(3), pages 195-223, March.
- repec:pri:cepsud:77 is not listed on IDEAS
This item has more than 25 citations. To prevent cluttering this page, these citations are listed on a separate page. reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.Access and download statisticsgeneral information about how to correct material in RePEc.
For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Zhang, Lei).
If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.
If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.
If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.
If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.
Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.