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

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  542 ratings  ·  59 reviews
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 argu ...more
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published September 4th 2011 by Princeton University Press (first published August 11th 2011)
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Greg Linster
A key insight from the work of Adam Smith is that specialization in an economy makes us all better off in absolute terms. While this is undoubtedly true in material terms, it ignores the psychological costs that can come from hyper-specialization. And Smith himself was well aware of these psychological costs. In fact, he believed that the division of labor taken to an extreme can turn people into savage creatures “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be”.

Read the rest of
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Darwin Economy is an intellectual page-turner. It is one of the few thoughtful challenges to libertarian ideas I have read. The book is structured as a logical argument about positional goods--those things that are only beneficial relative to what others have. For example, running a fast time in a race is only important in relation to the other runners--were you the fastest? Did you win the race? Similarly, many things related to status and power that humans pursue are only valued relative t ...more
Trey Malone
Oct 01, 2014 rated it did not like it
This book was a total bait and switch. After reading the back cover, I found myself quite excited to read about Frank's contention that Charles Darwin will be the economic father of economics as we move forward as a research field. Frank has a long list of accolades, so naturally I respect his opinion on economic research.

UNFORTUNATELY, this book rarely even mentions Darwin. Instead, it contains complaints on complaints regarding what Frank deems libertarian ideas. I find his straw man argument
William Boyle
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The fallacies of the libertarian economic philosophy can be very attractive -- but they are still fallacies.
Author Robert H. Frank clearly points out many of the libertarian errors of reasoning...
An excerpt from the book:
-> "The difficult question is how to eliminate wasteful government spending without inflicting even more costly collateral damage. Experience suggests that the 'starve-the-beast' [Grover Norquist] strategy is NOT the answer."
"Starve-the-beast proponents might be likened to a do
Apr 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
Great book on relative consumption, collective action problems, market failures, and libertarianism. Notes below:

> A rational libertarian who reflects carefully about the traditional libertarian position will find it difficult to defend. I have granted every traditional libertarian assumption—that markets are perfectly competitive, that consumers are essentially rational, and that government may not restrict behavior except to prevent undue harm to others. To this list I have added only one subs
Paul M.
Mar 14, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
What I liked best about this book was its central idea- it mixes Darwinian insights with economics in its observation of those situations where the invisible hand doesn't quite get it done. Frank compares these situation to evolutionary arms races, where, for example, male peacocks would be a lot better off, individually and as a species, if all of their tails were half their current size. However, since getting a mate is based on having a bigger tail than your rivals, no one bird would be bette ...more
Oct 31, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
A well-written and persuasive argument for more rational thought in how society approaches the question of free markets vs regulation. The author's recommendation falls squarely on the side of more regulation, based on the concept of maximizing total benefit across all members of society. Too bad no one that makes US policy is likely to read it and take it seriously, since there's no incentive in our political system to actually maximize the total benefit to society over the narrow interests of ...more
Apr 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Several reviews have found Frank's tone condescending toward movement Libertarians, but I didn't pick that up as much. Frank came across to me like a typical academic: follow my reasoning and obviously you will find that I am correct, and it will thus be absurd if you don't agree with me. And that tone didn't bother all that much, probably because I found Frank's logic thorough and compelling sound, even where I harbored my disagreements with his conclusions. His thesis is fairly straightforward ...more
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In view of the recent economic meltdown, I am sure it’s no secret to anyone that unregulated or poorly-regulated economic competition can run wild — to the detriment of society as well as individuals. But this outcome is hardly surprising to those who paid attention to Darwin’s ideas about competition in the natural world — ideas inspired by the extravagance of the peacock’s tail or by the sheer size of a stag’s rack of antlers.

This is the main argument made by New York Times economics columnist
Zach Zhao
Jan 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very intellectual book with some truly original and thought-provoking ideas about how individual interests and collective interests sometimes diverge and how such divergence could lead to wasteful outcomes especially in a competitive environment. It is definitely interesting to see the author pitting Adam Smith against Darwin Charles and arguing that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand Principle could be viewed as a special case of Darwin Charles more general Natural Selection/Sexual Selection hypothe ...more
Angie Boyter
May 08, 2012 rated it it was ok
This COULD have been a really good book, because the basic ideas are very interesting, but the writing was so biassed that I kept getting completely turned off and non-receptive. For example, Frank repeatedly criticizes libertarians, Republicans, and other conservatives for their rhetoric (and I must agree with such valid criticisms) as well as their ideas, but then he says, "The logic they offer in support of their position would be comical if the stakes were not so high." I happen to agree wit ...more
Matt Bodien
Feb 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics
A strange title given the content. Should have instead be titled, "Why Libertarians are Wrong."

~215 pages about why Libertarian, anti-government, anti-tax economic ideology is suboptimal and often contradictory.

Biggest insight is around the idea that by *not* intervening, the government fails to correct externalities. Beyond just the common examples of externalities of noise, pollution, and the such, this book goes to claim that the marketplace, more particularly the demand, for certain goods an
Brock Wilson
Jul 27, 2013 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the main point of the book. Rational people should allow governments to tax or regulate undesirable activities so that taxes can be lowered on desirable activities. Doing so will result in a net benefit for a society. Many of the activities that should be taxed more heavily are not taxed at all.

The author spent too much time arguing against libertarians. A big problem in the states but not as much in Canada where we still don't have taxes on a lot of the negative activities. The point
Nov 16, 2011 rated it it was ok
A late-career repetition of previous academic work, combined with a grab bag of grievances with the cartoonish American right (right down to critiquing comments on conservative blogs). I find Frank's economic centrism very attractive, and I'm intrigued enough to dig into his back catalogue, but I felt like this book was pretty shallow on the whole and didn't really hang together in a coherent way. ...more
David Wilkins
Jul 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Excellent description of why so many economic assumptions are false. Explains why cost/benefit analyses are the best way to make communal decisions, but in the US both the left and the right are against them. Thus, American cities cannot implement London's excellent solution to traffic congestion. ...more
Daniel B-G
Feb 25, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: socsci, dnf, socsci-econ
It’s difficult to take someone seriously when they try to use evolution as their central metaphor if they don’t really get their facts right. There are two separate glaring issues. First, the “Winner gets all” is a very masculine view of evolution. It plays to the things that men most like to hear about themselves, sexual conquest and being the biggest and best. It almost suggests that there’s no such thing as pair bonding, queen dominant hives and female dominant species. It also completely fai ...more
Bob Gustafson
Mar 15, 2020 rated it liked it
This book is an argument for a political/economic point of view. For that reason, I have to begin by saying that my point of view is anarchist libertarian. The purpose of this book is to convince people like me that a moderately liberal approach is the one to take in the early 21st century United States.

The author states that the libertarian point of view is based largely upon Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations". That book is predicated on rational decision making. People don't make decisions ratio
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
A smart an well planned assault on the libertarian perspective of Economics theory and theur public policy ideas.

There is a lot of fun thought experiments in this book...... Frank makes the case that libertarians (and let's be honest, Republicans) crusade on government and taxes makes little sense. It results in a society where we are all worse off.

His book is also a rallying cry for others to take up the fight to oppose these same ideas.

Overall I'd say it's my kind of book, even if I'm not real
Scott Tennican
Dec 06, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Adam Smith noted that [the rich, in some cases,] "without knowing it, advance the interest of the society". This book focuses on a couple cases where society suffers instead. Namely, the "winner take all" and the "positional good" cases. In such cases, an individual rational decision can result in a negative societal outcome (e.g. overspending on weapons since only the biggest military wins the war). The book has nothing at all to do with Darwin's theory except that "winner take all" transaction ...more
Sep 14, 2018 rated it did not like it
I think the author falls into one of the biggest reasons Libertarians don’t want government regulation, he makes broad assumptions as to what people want. Not everyone cares about better school districts, nor does everyone use that as a sole reason to move. Lots of people with no kids move into areas that are known to have poor schools, hardly surprising. The individual is the best one to determine their own individual cost benefit analysis.

As some other reviewers have mentioned, the author use
Yasser Mohammad
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is as important as Capitalism in the 21st century if not more. While Capitalism in the 21st century is mostly an imperial finding about the distribution of wealth, this book has the full package. It's main theoretical underpinning is the superiority of evolutionary thinking about competition to the smith-style economic thinking "the invisible hand". It is well known that smith's idea that free self-interested agent interaction maximizes the social welfare (in the game-theoretic underst ...more
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
If I had to pick a research field, it would be complex economics. The human component in economics is as relevant as it is misunderstood. ("markets, which are human creations thus are not absolute"). Perfect decision making and the concept of the homo oeconomicus are overcome now, though they still remain ingrained in some ways, and much much more research has to be done. Drawing from Darwin and Smith, the theory that emerges is that personal and group interests can conflict and this is where go ...more
Martin Henson
I was mislead: the book is not about Darwin or even about evolutionary economics - and for two reasons. First, as a glance at the index indicates, the references to Darwin and evolution are very front-loaded, appearing in the first few tens of pages - the content is not thoroughly underpinned by what the book advertises as fundamental. Second, and much more important, the references that are there are simply misguided. Surely, it might be possible to make a powerful analogy between the way that ...more
Yanick Punter
May 05, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: stopped-reading
I thought the title was misleading. I was expecting the incorporation of evolutionary biology with economics. Instead it was rather plain economics with Darwinian analogy as far as I am concerned.

The book might still be worth a read but at this point I stopped reading so I can read other books. What've read so far I did not find interesting.
Oct 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: politics, economics
Using the concept of "performance or quality being measured on the curve rather than absolute" to convince a libertarian how it is in his own best interest, and how it doesn't diminish his autonomy to support progressive taxation and a welfare state. ...more
Diego Saldarriaga
Jun 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
It started slow, but it has a very good and comprehensive critique to Libertarianism. It provides really nice insights on the evolutionary-economical side of decision making.
Sep 19, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: economics
The author writes this book to refute libertarian ideas. Since I am partial to libertarian ideas, I did not enjoy this author's bias. However, I did find some arguments I could agree with.

Frank claims that Charles Darwin's understanding of competition is more applicable to economics than Adam Smith's. Darwin understood that some adaptations that are good for the individual are bad for the species or society. E.g. the arms race resulting in large antlers on bull elk. This helps win a battle for
Nov 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
I found it difficult to determine what point the author, a Cornell University economist, was trying to make. I listened to an audio version from, which may have added to difficulty, but I doubt the format had much to do with the difficulty. Some major themes have stuck in my mind, however. First, the idea that the best outcome for an individual is not necessarily the best for the group or society. This idea is the one that Frank ascribes to Charles Darwin, as it is an idea that has c ...more
Jun 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
I heartily recommend this book to my politically inclined friends--on all ends of the spectrum. I would love to give it five stars, because of he insightful ideas it espouses, but I found it a bit repetitious, so I had to back off.

Essentially, the author uses arguments of economic efficiency to show that a true libertarian society is NOT the one that the rich should prefer. On the contrary, societies that allow for some measure of wealth redistribution are those that everyone would choose, given
Apr 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: pop-economics, 2012
There are some aspects of this book I really did not like: most notably, the insistence on the "silver bullet" insight that ranking are what matters most to economic agents. While of course I do agree that this is the case in many instances, in many others which are economically relevant the absolute distance in the ranking does matter (which may work either reinforcing or weakening Frank's line of argument, depending on context). More in general, the fervour with which Frank insists on the prim ...more
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Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and a Professor of Economics at Cornell University's S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management. He contributes to the "Economic View" column, which appears every fifth Sunday in The New York Times. ...more

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