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

The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good
by Robert H. Frank
Princeton University Press, 256 pp.

In today’s economics department the libertarian holds a place comparable to that of Maoists among antiwar protestors back in the 1970s: a fringe group, yet admired (by some) for dedication and clarity—the purs et durs, in the French phrase. Libertarians take individualism to its limits, they count on markets to set prices generating actions that lead to happiness, they would drown government in a bathtub, and they do not care if some people are homeless. Theirs is the appeal, in one word, of the fanatic.

Cornell economics professor and New York Times columnist Robert Frank, on the other hand, is a moderate. He favors law and regulation, and he believes that government must play an important role in building and maintaining infrastructure and social insurance. He believes that once upon a time there was wide agreement on these points, and he regrets that America has decayed as this agreement fractured. Frank is also the most distinguished scholar of rank and hierarchy in academic economics; he takes the libertarians seriously, and The Darwin Economy is his extended conversation with the libertarian mind.

What’s the matter with the libertarian view? Frank thinks that Charles Darwin came up with the first and best answer: what is good for the individual is often bad for the group. Overweight elephant seals and over-antlered bull elk gain preferential sexual access and pass on their genes, but this comes at the cost of being less able to escape predators. Natural selection works against the wider propagation of the species. In hockey, players gain a small advantage from not using helmets, but if no one uses one, the advantages cancel and all are worse off. Given a vote, therefore, rational hockey players favor a helmet requirement. In economic life, myriad taxes and regulations work the same way: it may benefit a single business to break the rules, but if the rules are removed no one is better off and if they are respected no one is hurt.

To Frank the force of this insight is such that he favors Darwin over Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” taking that notion to be the core of libertarian belief. The invisible hand is widely thought to be Smith’s apotheosis of free markets, which posits that unfettered markets are capable of being inherently fair. Although this is a considerable overstatement and Frank is careful to distinguish the actual Adam Smith—a skeptical realist about human nature whose less-known work is called The Theory of Moral Sentiments—from the familiar Ayn-Randian greed-is-always-good caricature, he associates the latter with “movement libertarianism.”

Against the fanatical absolutist free-marketeer that movement libertarians see in Smith, Frank offers up a one-dimensional Darwin; there is nothing about common descent, evolutionary dynamics, or the role of chance in this book. The insight that sexual selection does not maximize group population is practically the whole of Frank’s take from The Origin of Species. But why this should matter to the species is not clear. Almost all species have limited numbers and range—and predators are always intrinsically less numerous than prey—and yet have survived the ages. What difference does it make whether there are few or many? Maximizing group size is a human preoccupation—related to nations and armies and representation in Congress. Biology differs from economics and politics, in that animals don’t care.

The economist’s style consists mainly of thought experiments, which are then linked to policy implications. This is the method here; Frank’s question is usually, What should a logical libertarian think about situation X? He delights in making out puzzles. Setting up one such, he notes that many libertarians (especially the “serious” ones at the University of Chicago) embraced the “consequentialist” reasoning of Ronald Coase, according to which the law should assign the burden of adjustment for conflicts and disagreements on those for whom it is less costly. Then he imagines for us a 1960s Atlanta where 100 interracial couples would like to hold hands in public while a million white citizens would prefer that they didn’t. According to Frank, the Coasian libertarian would agree to an ordinance forbidding interracial hand-holding so long as the million who preferred this outcome compensated the hundred for the inconvenience. (That would make everyone “better off,” you see.) And Frank, who is a practicing liberal (in the American sense), then tries to show why this is wrong—mainly by arguing that preferences can change, as they clearly have.

It’s an odd and provocative line of argument, and it’s not quite clear whether the target of criticism is the “movement libertarian” who would presumably object to all such laws simply because they are laws, the “serious libertarian” who would go along with Coase, or Coase himself. Anyone who is none of these things is likely to be repelled. The thought experiment contains no reference to slavery, to lynching, and to all the ritual violent humiliations that defined life in the American South for centuries and that place the issue far outside the pecuniary realm. The money numbers are made up on the assumption that you can assign a price to basic rights. There is no actual measurement of anything, nor any discussion of how people outside Frank’s imaginary Atlanta might feel. To the economist, evidently, these matters of history and fact and context and morals don’t matter—they are water under the bridge; de gustibus non est disputandum; stuff for “sociology professors” to worry about. Making the noneconomist uncomfortable, without quite saying so, appears to be part of the point.

Frank believes (with most liberals but against the evidence of history) that governments must have tax revenues in order to spend. A major thesis of his book is that logical libertarians should favor the progressive income tax. In a thought experiment aimed at this issue, he writes,

In an environment constructed for the specific purpose of shielding libertarian sensibilities from any possibility of coercion, the voluntary societies that formed would all feature progressive income taxation. The degree of progressivity that would emerge … would depend on how much some were willing to pay for positions of high social rank and on how much others were willing to accept for agreeing to occupy positions of low social rank.

It’s clever (that’s the economist’s highest compliment), but what exactly is the point of constructing a rationale for progressive taxation on this basis? Any evolutionist knows that all societies feature predators and prey, with hierarchies maintained and enforced by intimidation and violence. (“Wealth is power, as Mr. Hobbes says”— so wrote Adam Smith, no less.) In the real world progressive taxation exists to tame this violence by limiting the acquisition of power. Why must this basic fact be ignored in favor of an artificial world, just for the sake of libertarian sensibilities?

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.