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The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good Hardcover – September 4, 2011
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Winner of the 2012 Bronze Medal Book Award in the Economics category, Axiom Business
Finalist for the 2011 Book of the Year Award in Business & Economics, ForeWord Reviews
"[Frank's] arguments are carefully crafted and artfully presented to make the case that since we're in the business of designing society from top down anyway we might as well go whole hog and do it right."--Michael Shermer, Journal of Bioeconomics
"Important."--Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times
"Robert Frank's The Darwin Economy . . . provide(s) much-needed information and analysis to explain why so much of the nation's money is flowing upward. Frank, an economist at Cornell, draws on social psychology to shatter many myths about competition and compensation."--Andrew Hacker, New York Review of Books
"[An] excellent new book."--Jonathan Rothwell, New Republic's The Avenue blog
"The premise of economist Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'--a tenet of market economics--is that competitive self-interest shunts benefits to the community. But that is the exception rather than the rule, argues writer Robert H. Frank. Charles Darwin's idea of natural selection is a more accurate reflection of how economic competition works . . . because individual and species benefits do not always coincide. Highlighting reasons for market failure and the need to cut waste, Frank argues that we can domesticate our wild economy by taxing higher-end spending and harmful industrial emissions."--Nature
"[P]rovocative. . . . Frank is an economist for the rest of us. . . . [T]he Darwin Economy . . . focus[es] on one paradox of economic life: behavior which makes sense for a particular individual can harm the community as a whole."--Chrystia Freeland, Reuters
"Frank's worthy and unfashionable aim is to argue the economic case for some forms of government regulation, to defend taxation, and even to advocate certain forms of tax increase."--Howard Davies, Times Higher Education
"The Darwin Economy fundamentally challenges this theory of competition which, argues Frank, is a flawed way of understanding competitive forces throughout many aspects of economic life. . . . Frank adds something new to the debate. . . . [H]e offers a powerful theoretical insight into the nature of competitive economic forces and the free market. . . . [I]t is an insight we could all potentially benefit from."--Daniel Sage, LSE Politics & Policy blog
"[V]ery illuminating."--Matthew Shaffer, National Review Online's The Agenda
"Frank's argument is a strong critique of the neo-classical view of the market and unlike many liberal critiques, does not rely on arguments about market imperfections, dominant powers, information asymmetries or irrationality. . . . [T]he Darwin Economy provides an important argument that must be addressed by any libertarian."--Evolving Economics blog
"Frank's book is peppered with examples of how actions that improve the well-being of the individual harm the collectivity. . . . [B]rave and welcome."--Robert Kuttner, American Prospect
"[I]mpressive, original and thoughtful."--Tim Harford, Financial Times
"The practical implications of Frank's insight are quite broad. . . . Frank manages to write breezily and with a minimum of jargon. His book deserves wide readership among people who suspect that something has gone drastically wrong with the economy."--Charles R. Morris, Commonweal
"Applying Darwin to economics provides new ways of thinking about taxation and the role of government in a free society. It also reminds economists and bankers how much they have neglected the humble wisdom with which they must confront uncertainty."--Arab News
"Frank makes a compelling argument against the libertarian view that government should not interfere with individual liberty by forcing us to buy safety or insurance, via taxation. . . . His book is a welcome addition to a field that is in need of more economists and political theorists who challenge the status quo and explore concepts of justice in the spirit of John Rawls and Michael Sandel."--ForeWord
"[The Darwin Economy] is a smart, complex, and thoughtful book that will make many readers view the dismal science in a wholly different way."--Biz Ed magazine
"Reading this book will . . . provide a useful counterpoint to EU discussion about fiscal austerity and the importance of solidarity in the EU budget. Whether you start on the left or the right this book invites some re-thinking."--European Voice
"Frank is one of the most interesting economists regularly writing for the public. Serious scholars across the social sciences will learn a lot from this book."--Choice
"[T]he Darwin Economy is noteworthy for its very acrobatic devotion to some--any--model that would seem well positioned to supplant the invisible hand as the prime mover of economic life in market societies. Instead of simply noting the abundant empirical failures of free-market theorizing for what they are--and thereby placing the burden of accountability on the small-government apostles of deregulation--Frank opts for the centrist dodge of trimming the differences between the excesses of libertarian dogma on the one hand and the reflexes of an allegedly Naderite, intervention-happy left cadre of government bureaucrats on the other."--Chris Lehmann, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
"[E]xcellent; clearly written, engaging, and logically argued."--Devorah Bennu, GrrlScientist blog
"Robert Frank has turned a cool, penetrating shaft of light on what are too often debates fuelled by bombast and rhetoric."--Colin Crouch, Political Quarterly
"The book is full of interesting observations, many of which I agree with. . . . The book is stimulating and worth at least a couple of hours of your attention."--Journal of Economic Literature
From the Back Cover
"I've been reading Robert Frank's books for years, and he just gets better and better. I strongly recommend The Darwin Economy: it's clear, persuasive, and cleverly entertaining, and it provides a new and original insight about a central issue in economics. Read and enjoy."--Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"The Darwin Economy debunks popular nostrums of both left and right, and takes particular aim at the notion that a well-functioning competitive market system will necessarily produce socially optimal results. Frank suggests novel approaches to America's problems that go well beyond the tired ideas of the present debate."--Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order
"Competition often serves the parts better than the whole. This is true for both species evolution and human society. Only a fool would count on the invisible hand. In his usual clearheaded and lively style, Robert Frank explains how Charles Darwin thought more deeply about these issues than most contemporary economists."--Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy and Our Inner Ape
"Pointing to new ways of thinking about collective action and taxation, Robert Frank has given us a book that is as important as it is timely."--Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational
"The Darwin Economy's message is in my view the only hope for a rational economic future."--William J. Baumol, past president, American Economic Association
"This lucid, deeply engaging book provides the perfect antidote to the mindless sloganeering that dominates our current discussions about the role of government in a free society."--Dani Rodrik, author of The Globalization Paradox
"Robert Frank convincingly predicts that Darwin will eventually be recognized as the true intellectual father of economics. After you read The Darwin Economy, you'll want this prediction to come true as soon as possible."--David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives
"Pondering the implications of Darwinian theory, and rejecting the received wisdom of libertarian and left-wing pundits alike, Robert Frank convincingly lays out economic policies that will benefit the rich, the poor, and the broader society."--Howard Gardner, author of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
"Human beings cooperate. Markets help. That's Adam Smith. Human beings also compete: not just for resources, but for relative position in the mating game. That's Darwin. Add Darwin to Adam Smith, and you get Robert Frank, and a book full of dazzling insight."--Mark Kleiman, author of When Brute Force Fails
"Robert Frank is a national treasure in our discussions about public policy. He shows here that our understanding of economics needs to be informed more by a sophisticated interpretation of Charles Darwin than by a simplistic view of Adam Smith. Given the state of our politics, this latest dose of Frank advice deserves to be widely read."--Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace
Top Customer Reviews
In a basic sense, the book is about the rising inequality of the last 30 years and the resulting negative consequences. Without oversimplifying too much, his arguments can be summarized as follows:
1) The market economy articulated by Adam Smith has failures that many libertarians and those on the right fail to recognize or acknowledge. While self-interest can be channelled to serve the common good via compeition, it can often lead to results that diminish the overall economic pie. Frank refers to the latter as the Darwin Economy and provides some interesting examples from nature to demonstrate this. For example, while the beautiful feathers of an individual peacock might increase its reproductive success with peahens, overall the large feathers are a net detriment to the species as it makes peahens more vulnerable to predation. Likewise, the larger the antlers of an individual deer, the more likely it will successfully breed with females and pass its genes on to the next generation. However, other than individual reproductive competition within the species, antlers provide no other benefit and are a cumbersome genetic quirk.
2) In order to alleviate Darwinian failures in market contexts, we need more government regulations and income redistribution. The transaction costs, in a Coasean sense, are too high for individuals to correct these market failures without some larger intervening force. As an example, while each NHL hockey player has an advantage by not wearing a helmet versus those that do, overall the group is worse off without helmets due to the increased safety risks. Without top down regulations from the NHL, no reasonable means exists for each player to wear a helmet even though it is in everyone's overall self interest to use one.
3) Relative position matters and the wealthy produce significant Darwinian failures through the consumption of ever larger houses, more luxurious cars and ever larger galas. This consumption has increased over the past 30 years as a significant portion of the productivity gains have been concentrated in the upper tiers of society. The result is an expenditure cascade whereby those in lower classes feel the need to consume ever more resources to maintain a standard of living on par with the wealthy. Overall, this process leads to overconsumption and a decrease in overall welfare for each individual who finds himself in deeper debt and less satisfied with his well being.
4) The transaction costs are too high for each individual to decide to consume less. Keeping up with the Joneses is just too tempting. The least intrusive remedy is to transition from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax whereby tax liabilities are determined based on consumption and not income.
5) The result of a consumption tax would be a win-win. Individuals would have more incentive to save rather than to consume and the resulting increase in tax revenues could help to fund much needed infrastructure improvements and shore up shortfalls in social security and medicare.
6) If you disagree with Frank's conclusions, then you are probably a "libertarian evangelist."
I strongly agree with Frank that we tend to consume beyond our means, which leads us to be much less happy on net. Expenditure cascades and the introduction of Darwinian examples helps to explain our shortcomings in our quest for ever more goods and services. In addition, due to the transaction costs, this market deficiency is difficult to cure via individual action. However, one can accept these premises without agreeing with Frank's overall conclusion regarding a Piguvian consumption tax. Here is where I start to disagree:
1) Darwinian failures in government contexts. I would feel much more obligated to accept Frank's conclusions if voters were rational, government regulators were reasonably omniscient and politicians were honest. But they aren't. If we drop these assumptions and instead focus on what regulations or redistribution will be politically profitable to make, we begin to see a very large divergence between Frank's preferred remedies and the common good. I am reluctant to provide ever more powers to a government monopoly provider who tends to provide its services ineffectively and efficiently. Medicare, Freddie and Fannie Mac, and the decision to go to war in Iraq are just a couple of examples of government failures over the past 30+ years.
2) Is the beast starved? A central part of the book is the assumption that the government is starved for resources and is forced to manage a decaying infrastructure. I do not believe that this is accurate in either a microeconomic or macroeconomic sense. The government's share of GDP has increased, not decreased over the past 30 years. In addition, infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP has remained relatively stable since the 1960s, a time period that Frank seems to remember with great fondness. Before I feel the obligation to send the government ever more tax funds, it would need to demonstrate its ability to do a better job with its current share of GDP.
3) Darwinian failures among the non-wealthy. In order to make Frank's arguments work, he would need to incorporate negative externalities produced by a significant portion of the poor. This would include the inability for many (but certainly not all) of the poor to produce labor that people find valuable, an inability to support themselves and a propensity to over produce offspring who have very little chance of providing a net benefit to the common good or themselves. Through welfare and public education, we are already providing a large portion of the social surplus to them. Do we really need to increase their social status relative to the wealthy in addition to the benefits already being provided? (I am not suggesting that these programs be cut)
At the end of the day, the most important aspect for me is whether the people who have lots of things have acquired them justly. I tend to believe that the negative externalities produced by the wealthy are much smaller than Frank assumes and that government solutions are not very likely to alleviate them once government failures are included in the mix. While Steve Jobs, Sam Walton and Jeff Bezos have become extremely wealthy, the spillover effects of better and cheaper consumer goods that they have produced for the average consumer like myself have been quite large and miraculous in a historical context.
I suppose that this makes me a "libertarian evangelist." What Frank does not seem to realize is that this probably makes him a "governmental evangelist" by extension.
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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But I was quite puzzled by Robert Frank’s comments about Charles Darwin.Read more