Whitfield on the Darwin Economy


Jason Collins


October 17, 2011

There have been a few reviews of Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good recently, but John Whitfield’s in Slate is one of the more interesting.

First, Whitfield picks on Frank’s choice of evolutionary metaphor:

As a biological analogy, Frank suggests the difference between running speed and antler size. A faster gazelle is better equipped to outrun a cheetah, and so, he writes, “being faster conferred advantages for both the individual and the species.” Antlers, on the other hand, are used for fighting with other males. The pressure to have bigger ones than your rivals leads to an arms race that consumes resources that could have been used more efficiently for other things, such as fighting off disease. As a result, every male ends up with a cumbersome and expensive pair of antlers, says Frank, and “life is more miserable for bull elk as a group.”

… But evolutionarily speaking, the distinction is bogus.

Natural selection sees no difference between running speed and antler size: All evolution is positional. When one gazelle got faster, the slower ones got eaten (a point Frank relegates to a footnote). And when gazelles got fast, so did cheetahs. Cheetahs and gazelles would all be better off if they’d stayed slow, because running fast uses energy you might “better” invest in offspring, and legs that are built for speed are more prone to fracture. The lissome cheetah, meanwhile, is bullied and often killed by bigger carnivores such as lions.

Whitfield’s argument picks up on a broader point in evolution. When a new gene spreads through a species, it is not really for the good of the species. All of the members of the species without that gene die out. The “species” that now has this gene is solely composed of descendants of the lucky individual that had the gene. A fitness enhancing mutation is a highly positional good.

The second thread of Whitfield’s review is that Robert Frank is running a group-selectionist argument. I don’t see the group selection analogy, but Whitfield does have a more pertinent point:

From Frank’s book, you might conclude that what stands in the way of his reforms is not differing interests, but irrationality—an imperfect understanding of how competition works. … But what evolutionary biology teaches us is that it’s not enough to assume, as Frank does, that everyone just wants to create the biggest economic pie. That’s like saying a gazelle cares more about the average speed of its herd than whether it can outrun a hungry cheetah.

In fact, those leading and funding opposition to progressive taxation are rational enough—they’re the one who do best if society becomes an arms race won by those with the biggest antlers and the priciest suitcases, with the lions getting anyone who can’t keep up. What those opposing them need to show is not just how the common good can be maximized, but how it can be reconciled with the self-interest of enough people to vote it into being.

On one hand, this misrepresents Frank’s case, as he does try to show that self-interest and group-interest can be aligned. But it is fair to ask why some people fight proposals such as Frank’s. As Frank states through his book, his arguments don’t need irrationality at the micro-level, but the fact they are not accepted implies that either some people are irrational in their understanding of policy, or that there is another piece to the puzzle.

One possible reconciliation is that Frank’s ideas come as a package which have only a few attractive elements. Frank’s argument is not simply that we should constrain positional competition, but he also wants more funding for government and to give it a greater role in some areas.

But the deeper side to the opposition is that some people benefit from positional competition. In an evolutionary scenario, while the rank matters, the size of the win also matters. For example, if  one person has vastly more resources than another and there is an environmental shock, the difference in probability of survival is likely to be significant. However, if someone has only marginally more resources than the other, the difference in probability of survival may be small, and luck may result in the lower ranked individual coming out on top.