All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

What Price Fame? by Tyler Cowen

An Ingenious Analysis of the Causes and Consequences of Fame

Harvard University Press • 2000 • 248 pages • $22.00

As it happens, I’m writing this review on the 20th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. This is an event about which it is appropriate to ask: What price fame? Lennon’s fame was precisely what lured Mark David Chapman to murder him. By murdering someone famous, the murderer himself achieves fame. Lennon’s fame cost him his life. Chapman’s fame was purchased at the price of his liberty. Those are high prices to pay even for something as attractive as fame.

In his latest book, Tyler Cowen—professor of economics at George Mason University—discusses the downside of fame. Cowen goes far beyond the usual bromides about fame’s dangers. For example, he argues persuasively that people “seek to consume the fame of celebrities as a way of demonstrating power. Each time a famous person receives attention, he or she is the victim of a power play on the part of the attention-giver . . . . [F]ans and attention-givers feast upon the fame of others for their own selfish reasons.”

This is a superb insight, built on Cowen’s recognition that in commercial society even seemingly non-economic goods such as fame are, in fact, the products of exchange. Fame doesn’t just happen: fans give it to the famous in exchange for something that fans value. But this market isn’t perfect. While fame doesn’t typically lead to consequences so tragic as murder, it often causes fame-seekers to sacrifice truth and integrity for success. Witness almost any successful politician.

Although he warns against the dangers of fame and fame-seeking, Cowen’s principal purpose is not to bury fame but to applaud it. He celebrates modern fame and fame-seeking, showing that despite its imperfections, it largely promotes useful creations by fame-seekers. As Cowen observes, “[f]ans are consumers who pay, at least in part, with praise.” And fans generally get what they want. Cowen explains how market forces distribute fans’ praise to guide fame-seekers to produce what fans want.

But many of today’s most famous people are ethically challenged. Doesn’t that argue against Cowen’s favorable case for the way fame is produced and distributed? No. In the most intriguing argument of the book, Cowen admits that the modern system of producing and distributing fame separates it from moral merit, but that this separation is much less troubling than most people suppose.

Cowen’s explanation of the reasons why fame and merit are separated in commercial society, and why this separation should cause no anguish, is so rich and subtle that an adequate summary is impossible in a short review. But here are highlights of the argument.

“[F]ame is more likely to separate from merit when moral teachings are supplied in a decentralized way.” Indeed so. One of the largely ignored benefits of modern society is the decentralization of moral instruction. Decentralization promotes competition among moral instructors. Not only do different religions compete against one another to attract adherents, religion itself competes with other sources of moral instruction, such as self-help gurus.

As in other markets, it’s easy to find particular sources of moral instruction that seem (in the beholder’s eye) to be misguided. But there’s every reason to believe that competition in the moral-instruction business improves the overall quality of moral instruction. Fame, however, is usually bestowed on people for reasons quite apart from their moral merit. The fame of the likes of Dennis Rodman, Madonna, and Robert Downey Jr. clearly has nothing to do with their personal ethics. They are famous only because they are outstanding entertainers.

The concern is that the very fact that, say, Dennis Rodman is famous will cause people to emulate his behavior or, at least, to regard such behavior more favorably. Cowen’s counterargument is that with all of the competitive sources of moral instruction available, Dennis Rodman and other famous people enjoy no comparative advantage at influencing people’s morality.

Cowen discusses a related benefit of commercial society: it has tamed fame. “Commercial society, while taking relative recognition away from moral leaders, also has taken renown away from tyrants and violent rulers . . . . The association of fame with entertainers, for all its flaws, departs from earlier concepts of heroic brutality and martial virtue. Most of today’s famous people have had to persuade consumers to offer their allegiance and their dollars.”

Cowen’s ingenious analysis of the causes and consequences of fame’s separation from moral merit alone is worth the price of this wonderful book.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.