Search the Site

What Explains the Supply of Fame?

Over a long dinner (and more than a few glasses of wine) with some economist friends, conversation turned to trying to understand why happiness is declining in Belgium. Helena Svaleryd offered an audacious new theory: the Belgians have not enjoyed the rise of celebrity culture that provides so much amusement for the rest of us. Concurring, Anna Sjögren argued that no one in Belgium is famous.

You may argue that this theory is questionable. But if everyone does this, it may be more profitable instead to attack the empirical premise. At least that is my usual approach.

But the premise is true: Belgium is suffering a severe shortage of famous people.

Between the five of us at dinner, we managed to come up with one-and-a-half famous Belgians: Hergé (the author of the Tintin books), and Tia Hellebaut, a leading women’s high jumper (whose surname couldn’t be recalled).

The website boasts of 259 famous Belgians, but I have heard of very few of them. And 259 seems a rather paltry number for a population of 10 million, especially given that the list is dominated by historical figures. And to get to 259 Belgians, you have to include folks like Sabine Appelmans, who you may not have heard of unless you read down to #22 on the A.T.P. women’s tennis rankings in 1992.

Here’s a challenge: Name another famous Belgian. For the truly brave, see if you can name half a dozen of ’em. And for the social scientists: What explains the absence of famous Belgians?