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The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good Hardcover – September 4, 2011

3.6 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (September 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691153191
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691153193
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #514,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
While our ideological sensibilities are not closely aligned, I find the ideas of Robert Frank to be novel, thought provoking and challenging. "The Darwin Economy" is no exception. The book is intended as a critique of libertarian ideas and he likes to drop the "libertarian evangelist" bomb throughout the book to describe those with whom he disagrees. However, he appears to have almost as much intolerance for some of the worst arguments of the progressive movement - sans the ad hominems - and does not hesitate to point them out.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Frankly, I expected this book to be about (for me) incomprehensible economics and dull. Wrong on both counts, although thoughtful consideration of conflicting economic principles and contentious issues is included. In fact, Robert Frank's purpose is to explain how and why "departures from rational choice" (with and without regret) have occurred and what to do about them. He does so with a rare combination of erudition, rigor, eloquence, and wit. As he explains, "From the beginning, most of the work in behavioral economics has focused on departures with regret - those caused by cognitive errors...From the beginning, however, I've believed that much bigger losses result from departures from ration choice without regret. That's because people generally have both the desire and the ability to remedy cognitive errors unilaterally once they become aware of them [and then, hopefully, not repeat them]. In contrast, we typically lack both the means and the motive to alter behaviors we don't regret, even when those behaviors generate large social costs." That, in the proverbial nutshell, is the focus of this lively and entertaining book: An explanation of how to accommodate the wishes and behavior of self-interested individuals with the wishes and behavior of self-interested groups.

Here are three of Frank's observations that caught my eye:

"Charles Darwin was among the first to perceive the underlying problem clearly [i.e. equating Adam Smith's concept of `the invisible hand' to competition]. One of his central insights was that natural selection favors traits and behaviors primarily according to their effect on individual organisms, not larger groups. Sometimes individual and group interests coincide, he recognized, and in such cases we often get invisible hand-like results.
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