Sep. 6, 2011
Robert Frank pens new book, 'The Darwin Economy'
Charles Darwin will someday supplant Adam Smith as the intellectual father of economics, predicts Cornell's Robert Frank in his new book, "The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good" (Princeton University Press).
That's because Darwin understood the true nature of competition better than Adam Smith, says Frank, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Frank concedes that unbridled competition often promotes the common good, just as Smith claimed. "But as the pioneering naturalist, Charles Darwin understood clearly, individual interests often conflict sharply with group interests. And in those cases, individual interests tend to prevail," Frank said.
The Cornell economist explains: "The massive antlers of bull elk, for example, help individual bulls in their battles with one another for access to females. But they also severely hamper mobility in wooded areas, making bulls more vulnerable to predators. Bulls would be better off if each animal's antlers were smaller by half, since each fight would be resolved in the same way, and all would be less vulnerable to predators. But any individual bull with smaller antlers would never win a mate."
In market settings as well, Frank argues, competition leads to "mutually offsetting spending patterns" that cause enormous harm to the group. He suggests simple, unintrusive changes in tax policy that would free up literally trillions of dollars each year, without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. "It's an implausible-sounding claim," Frank acknowledges, "but it rests on logic and evidence that most of us already accept."
Frank is a monthly contributor to The New York Times and a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan public-policy research and advocacy organization. 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).
Frank will present a talk on "The Darwin Economy" Nov. 28 at 4:45 p.m. in 233 Plant Science Building.