The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good

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Overview

Who was the greater economist--Adam Smith or Charles Darwin? The question seems absurd. Darwin, after all, was a naturalist, not an economist. But Robert Frank, New York Times economics columnist and best-selling author of The Economic Naturalist, predicts that within the next century Darwin will unseat Smith as the intellectual founder of economics. The reason, Frank argues, is that Darwin's understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith's. And the consequences of this fact are profound. Indeed, the failure to recognize that we live in Darwin's world rather than Smith's is putting us all at risk by preventing us from seeing that competition alone will not solve our problems.

Smith's theory of the invisible hand, which says that competition channels self-interest for the common good, is probably the most widely cited argument today in favor of unbridled competition--and against regulation, taxation, and even government itself. But what if Smith's idea was almost an exception to the general rule of competition? That's what Frank argues, resting his case on Darwin's insight that individual and group interests often diverge sharply. Far from creating a perfect world, economic competition often leads to "arms races," encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting.

The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. That's a bold claim, Frank concedes, but it follows directly from logic and evidence that most people already accept.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Bioeconomics
[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
New York Times
Important.
— Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Review of Books
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 Republic's
[An] excellent new book . . .
— Jonathan Rothwell
Nature
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.
Reuters
[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
Times Higher Education
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
National Review Online's The Agenda
[V]ery illuminating.
— Matthew Shaffer
lving Economics blog

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.
American Prospect
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
Financial Times
[I]mpressive, original and thoughtful.
— Tim Harford
Commonweal
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
Arab News
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.
ForeWord
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.
Biz Ed
[The Darwin Economy] is a smart, complex, and thoughtful book that will make many readers view the dismal science in a wholly different way.
European Voice
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.
Choice
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.
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
[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
GrrlScientist
[E]xcellent; clearly written, engaging, and logically argued.
— Devorah Bennu
Political Quarterly
Robert Frank has turned a cool, penetrating shaft of light on what are too often debates fuelled by bombast and rhetoric.
— Colin Crouch
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

[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
Journal of Economic Literature
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 Bioeconomics - Michael Shermer
[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.
New York Times - Nicholas D. Kristof
Important.
New York Review of Books - Andrew Hacker
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.
New Republic's - Jonathan Rothwell
[An] excellent new book . . .
Reuters - Chrystia Freeland
[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.
Times Higher Education - Howard Davies
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.
National Review Online's The Agenda - Matthew Shaffer
[V]ery illuminating.
American Prospect - Robert Kuttner
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 . . .
Financial Times - Tim Harford
[I]mpressive, original and thoughtful.
Commonweal - Charles R. Morris
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.
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas - Chris Lehmann
[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.
GrrlScientist - Devorah Bennu
[E]xcellent; clearly written, engaging, and logically argued.
Political Quarterly - Colin Crouch
Robert Frank has turned a cool, penetrating shaft of light on what are too often debates fuelled by bombast and rhetoric.
LSE Politics & Policy blog iel Sage

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.
From the Publisher

"[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

New York Times

Important.
— Nicholas D. Kristof
Reuters

[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
Commonweal

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
Choice

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.
Nature

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.
Times Higher Education

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
Financial Times

[I]mpressive, original and thoughtful.
— Tim Harford
American Prospect

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
New York Review of Books

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
ForeWord

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.
Biz Ed

[The Darwin Economy] is a smart, complex, and thoughtful book that will make many readers view the dismal science in a wholly different way.
Arab News

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.
Journal of Bioeconomics

[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
European Voice

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.
Political Quarterly

Robert Frank has turned a cool, penetrating shaft of light on what are too often debates fuelled by bombast and rhetoric.
— Colin Crouch
New Republic's

[An] excellent new book . . .
— Jonathan Rothwell
National Review Online's The Agenda

[V]ery illuminating.
— Matthew Shaffer
GrrlScientist

[E]xcellent; clearly written, engaging, and logically argued.
— Devorah Bennu
Reuters
[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
lving Economics blog
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.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691153193
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/4/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 709,989
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert H. Frank is an economics professor at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and a regular "Economic View" columnist for the "New York Times", and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. His books, which have been translated into 22 languages, include "The Winner-Take-All Society" (with Philip Cook), "The Economic Naturalist", "Luxury Fever", "What Price the Moral High Ground?", and "Principles of Economics" (with Ben Bernanke).
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Table of Contents


Preface ix
Chapter 1: Paralysis 1
Chapter 2: Darwin’s Wedge 16
Chapter 3: No Cash on the Table 30
Chapter 4: Starve the Beast' But Which One? 46
Chapter 5: Putting the Positional Consumption Beast on a Diet 64
Chapter 6: Perpetrators and Victims 84
Chapter 7: Efficiency Rules 100
Chapter 8: "It’s Your Money . . ." 119
Chapter 9: Success and Luck 140 Chapter 10: The Great Trade- Off ? 157
Chapter 11: Taxing Harmful Activities 172
Chapter 12: The Libertarian’s Objections Reconsidered 194
Notes 217
Index 229
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 14, 2011

    Some good ideas; some not so good

    Shows good insight on some aspects of the economy, but his advocating a progressive consumption tax is a pathetically bad idea. As a tax specialist, who has prepared roughly 10,000 tax returns, I could think of myriad ways in which to thwart such a tax, so the tax burden would inevitably fall hardest on those who were less fortunate.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 29, 2011

    Some Interesting Ideas

    Frank challenges many of the age old assumptions about economics and has some very interesting ideas that will make you rethink yours, but turns into a bit of an anti-libertarian rant towards the end

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 22, 2011

    Excited about this book

    I just listended to a great podcast on this book between Bob Frank and Russ Roberts (EconTalk). B&N isn't allowing me to include a link, but it is an easy web search.

    For full disclosure, I had Professor Frank in graduate business school.

    While I disagreeing with Professor Frank often, I believe his discussion on this book is refreshingly new. If the book is half as good as his podcast with Russ Roberts (link above), then I will be pleased. I will write another

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 20, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    An economist¿s eloquent plea for better government

    Philosopher Adam Smith himself was skeptical about the real-world results of his “invisible hand,” but you’d never know it by the way modern-day free market fundamentalists try to push every regulation out of the way. As Cornell economist Robert H. Frank notes in his assault on the ideological force field that has blocked much US government action, naturalist Charles Darwin identified the problem: Evolutionary incentives benefit individuals, not groups. Frank uses that insight to argue that government must abridge some personal gains for the greater good. Frank is an economics professor, and his book sometimes falls into a challenging didacticism. But he writes with admirable clarity and verve, and – while his prediction that the world will one day recognize Darwin as the father of economics is perhaps a reach – he has done nothing less than provide a fresh intellectual foundation for progressivism. While always politically neutral, getAbstract recommends Frank’s treatise to lawmakers, economists, historians and civic-minded professionals who are concerned with the large questions society must tackle.

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    Posted April 22, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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