Dumbing Down Darwin

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

James K. Galbraith

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.

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

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