On Political Books

November/ December 2011 Dumbing Down Darwin

Robert Frank's effort to explain the lessons of evolution without offending libertarian sensibilities

By James K. Galbraith

Equally baffling are Frank’s insouciant remarks on corporate executive pay. He writes, “[A]buses occur. But they’re no worse now than they’ve always been.” This claim is followed by digressions about classical music, sports teams, and an admired university president (Frank’s own), before concluding on no further evidence that “the argument that skyrocketing executive pay is evidence of a breakdown of competitive forces does not withstand scrutiny.” And then … oops, he does concede: “a conspicuous exception is the financial services industry.”

Well, yes—and let’s not forget that the financial services industry earned 40 percent of all profits in the run-up to the great crisis, and possibly more afterward.

In recent years, numerous economists have found fame by advancing a “new idea” that is in fact a reductive imitation of a rich earlier tradition that the author ignores. The Darwin Economy, though gracefully written and often entertaining, is a fairly flagrant case. Notably, the great American economist Thorstein Veblen is not mentioned, even though Veblen practically drilled scientific Darwinism into economics with an 1898 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” Veblen followed that still-important work with his classic treatment of predator-prey economics in The Theory of the Leisure Class, an incisive book with a deep impact on the culture and politics that gave us the progressive movement, the income tax, the estate tax, and, ultimately, the New Deal.

These are matters that those who favor social regulation and restraint on the depredations of the rich and powerful should discuss, not merely with libertarians and not merely on their terms. Some economists do so: Veblen’s heirs have a vibrant professional society, which meets every year, right alongside the American Economic Association. It is called, of all things, the Association for Evolutionary Economics.

Professor Frank is not a member, but he’d be welcome to join.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience:

James K. Galbraith is president elect of the Association for Evolutionary Economics.


  • Old Georgetowner on October 25, 2011 10:19 PM:

    No sense of humor, no capacity for self-knowledge, you'd think Jamie felt himself in a contest with Paul Krugman.

    The late, great Jon Rowe would at least have been able to treat this book on its own terms before riding off into the sunset on his own favorite hobby-horse.

  • Ted Fontenot on October 26, 2011 12:07 AM:

    I haven't read the book yet, but I have read a number of reviews. This is the best. I don't know yet if it is accurate in its characterizations and assessment, but they are clearly and forcefully and gracefully stated.

  • Bill Mueller on October 26, 2011 9:21 AM:

    An interesting read on subject.
    Of Immortalized Warriors, A novel by yours truly.

    A modern-day story of blood and treasure, society, freedom, and wartime memories of an American hero - with tie-ins to world economics and evolutionary theories.

  • Charles on October 26, 2011 11:21 AM:

    A "science" mostly without robust extensive empirical evidence and by and large reliant on thought experiments is not a science at all, even a dismal one. It lacks even the type of empirical underpinnings of other 'soft' sciences like psychology and sociology. It's time to call economics what it is, a collection of opinions. Bringing in an economic team to set an administration's policy should be seen by a president for what it is: a crap shoot -- the resultant humility might save a lot of pain. A fruitful experiment would be to compare the eventual validity of the prescriptions of various "leading" economists with those of a panel of monkeys throwing darts at a dartboard. I kid not. This might yield a little hard evidence for a change.

  • Luke Lea on October 27, 2011 11:12 PM:


  • mike on October 28, 2011 8:19 PM:

    charles is a faggot

  • cmarrou on November 02, 2011 2:04 AM:

    Like other liberals, Mr. Galbraith misses the pachyderm in the parlor: no matter how nice government promises to be, it is the only faction that cannot be balanced and can do whatever it likes. This will ALWAYS lead to disaster unless government is kept small and weak - note what's going on now after 50 years of increasing governmental presence.

    Yes, it would be nice to have a government that could serve us all and keep the game honest, but economists who are not libertarians simply assume that any government will be, despite centuries of experience proving them wrong.

    Our federal government currently believes it is the sovereign and we are its subjects. Very bad things are going to happen before we come out on the other side - if we do.

  • SeemsToMe on November 11, 2011 1:04 PM:

    Charles, Economics is social science that relies on a mountain of data on the economy (see what's available from the Fed Reserve Banks, BEA, BLS, Census, etc.) You've obviously been reading too many economist's opinions in the media which look like they have no empirical support. And, the shortcomings of economist's predictions have as more to do with the fact good quality data only become available with a substantial time lag than with the quality of their understanding of what's going on. See, for example, the sizable revisions to the initial GDP estimates in later quarters. If you want to see some readable examples of the quality of economic analysis, look at publications of some of the regional Federal Reserve Banks.

    BTW, is that a tone of hate and contempt in your comment? You might want to work on where those feelings come from.

  • nitpicker on November 16, 2011 12:28 PM:

    "Our federal government currently believes it is the sovereign and we are its subjects." By what evidence do you make this argument? Oh, wait. You're a libertarian, aren't you? Never mind. I know it's part of your religio-economic world view that big bad government is always big and bad and evidence is unnecessary.

    I do wonder, though, why these supposed "sovereigns" are willing to step down from their thrones every few years when they lose elections decided by we mere subjects.

  • Lance on November 16, 2011 7:02 PM:

    Well, two points. First Darwin was a biologist, not an economist. I find it absurd to try to refute Smith with Darwin.

    Second, if you want to refute Smith, study anthropology, or simply read "Debt, the First 5000 Years". Smith's idea of the rise of money and of the market are in fact both based on philosophical fantasies (like the shadows in Plato's cave) rather than on a study of actual human cultures.

    The problem with libertarians is they imagine they can create a system that NEVER existed before, at least at the scale to actually be a NATION, rather than just independent communities awaiting conquest the neighbors unwilling to disarm with you.

  • susan on November 17, 2011 10:11 AM:

    I agree with Lance-and would add that ecology has more relevent ideas to share with economics than sexual selection-which is a special case in Darwinian theory.

  • filkertom on November 17, 2011 1:07 PM:

    "Frank believes (with most liberals but against the evidence of history) that governments must have tax revenues in order to spend."

    Ummm, what evidence? It's been shown pretty conclusively that if you lower the tax revenues, governments slash spending -- usually at the expense of social programs. Does the past ten or so years of history not count?

  • Orwin O'Dowd on November 17, 2011 2:06 PM:

    Gee-whiz, bacterial economics is subject to boom-and-bust cycles, like bacteria themselves. But never fear, you can go dumber than that, back to molecule economics on the edge of chaos! With nano-scale wage growth! Progress is thrilling, huh?

  • HMDK on November 20, 2011 7:14 AM:

    " cmarrou on November 02, 2011 2:04 AM:

    Like other liberals, Mr. Galbraith misses the pachyderm in the parlor: no matter how nice government promises to be, it is the only faction that cannot be balanced and can do whatever it likes. This will ALWAYS lead to disaster unless government is kept small and weak - note what's going on now after 50 years of increasing governmental presence. "

    This is the great libertarian joke.
    Governments, they say, cannot be balanced, in any way;
    (voting? what's that?)
    Yet they champion the full free spread of companies, who often will do their worst/best to buy said governments and in turn do the same. Only with a heftier check. As an atheist, I find it very ironic that a lot of (at least american) libertarians are atheists too. They've replaced gawd with the "invisible hand of the market", which is basically Calvinism.

  • AnonyMoo on November 22, 2011 12:14 PM:

    Q. What's wrong with the WARLfare economy?
    A. No fair (play), no (Chinese) wall!

  • Neil BA@A.COM on November 22, 2011 9:00 PM:

    Libertarianism is conceptually flawed at its core, because proponents ignore the "original justification" problem for property rights (esp. land ownership) and pretend they are a "given" and government is "artificial." But of course it is all artificial, and a construct involving *agreement* to have the rights in return for responsibilities. The control of property, taxation etc, is not an alien intrusion into a "natural" world (the natural world was the commons, the state of nature.) Instead, the rules, taxation etc. are part of the same social contract getting it "off the ground" as the property ownership itself. They are all one thing.