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42 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Argued and Extremely Thought Provoking, September 22, 2011
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This review is from: The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good (Hardcover)
Wow, this has to be one of the most interesting, well argued books I have read in a while. As you might have guessed from the brief description posted by Amazon above, in this book, Robert Frank, puts forth a set of arguments against libertarianism and the laissez faire approach to economics. This is an undoubtedly popular field for debate and there have been countless other books written on the topic. Most of these, however, attack libertarianism from a moral position. The problem with that approach of course is that it becomes very difficult to prove why one set of moral beliefs is superior to another and the end result becomes something of a stand-off between deontological vs. consequentialist viewpoints.

What really sets this book apart is that it gives libertarianism a huge benefit of the doubt in that all people are perfectly rational agents intent on maximizing their own gain. Frank then goes on to show that even with this key assumption at hand, the interest of the individual can often diverge from that of the group, resulting in adverse outcomes for all involved. He points out that this is because in most situations, it is the relative advantage and not an absolute one that matters. To illustrate this point Frank, uses a great example from the natural world: In the wild, male deer compete with one another over resources and access to females. So in order to persevere in a physical fight, it is obviously beneficial for each stag to have a competitive advantage in the size of the antlers over his opponent. After years of evolution, all that ends up happening is that the absolute size of antlers has grown dramatically, but the relative advantage between each individual remains the same. Now, the whole population of stags have to contend with oversized antlers that impede their movement in the forest and greatly increase their susceptibility to predation. If all the antlers in the population were reduced by 50%, the whole population would benefit, yet the hierarchy will remain the same, since it is the relative advantage that's important. It is really not hard to see how this example can apply to many issues in the human world, not the least of which are arms races.

I really don't want to give away too much of the book, or do an injustice to many of Frank's other brilliantly formulated arguments, so here is a short list of issues that are addressed using a similar methodology:

How to resolve social harm that results from positional externalities
Whether there should be a price that comes with higher rank in a society
Right to own the results of labor and the question of income redistribution
Emergence of winner-take-all markets
Extensive discussion on different forms of taxation

Despite the complex arguments in the book, it's perfectly accessible to all laymen readers. Frank makes a very solid effort to ensure that all his positions are very well explained and the points of debate are easy to follow. I definitely think this is a must read for anyone who has an interest in economics, philosophy or politics, especially given the role that libertarian ideology is playing in our current policy debate.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 18, 2011 11:48:32 AM PST
Schofield says:
You say "The problem with that approach of course is that it becomes very difficult to prove why one set of moral beliefs is superior to another and the end result becomes something of a stand-off between deontological vs. consequentialist viewpoints." You should try reading Alan Gewirth's book "Reason and Morality" which seems able to withstand all attacks that it is possible to have a universal morality superior to all other attempts through his Principle of Generic Consistency.
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