Charles Darwin, Economist

Robert Frank

I was born in 1945. When someone my age forecasts something that will happen fifty or a hundred years from now, he needn’t worry about being teased by friends if it doesn’t pan out. Without trepidation, then, I offer the following prediction: One century hence, if a roster of professional economists is asked to identify the intellectual father of their discipline, a majority will name Charles Darwin.

If the same question were posed today, of course, more than 99 percent of my colleagues would name Adam Smith. My views about Darwin’s significance reflect no shortage of admiration for Smith. On the contrary, reading any random passage from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher’s masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, still causes me to marvel at the depth and breadth of his insights.

I base my prediction on a subtle but extremely important distinction between Darwin and Smith’s views of the competitive process. As I’ll explain, it’s a distinction that sheds a bright light on a still raging debate about the nature and desirability of government regulation.

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