by Thomas McQuade
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times (“The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?”), Robert H. Frank proposes that Charles Darwin, not Adam Smith, should be seen as the real intellectual founder of the discipline of economics. He claims that Smith’s most famous idea – that the competitive pursuit of individual self-interest can redound to social good – is but a special case of Darwin’s more general picture of competition in which individual benefit sometimes does, but often does not, benefit the larger group. The sort of competition for which the invisible hand does not work well is, he says, where the competition is for relative gain, i.e., when the rewards depend on relative performance, and people gain by bettering each other rather than by bettering nature.
The problem with Frank’s argument is his careless deployment of the analogy between human beings interacting in a highly structured social environment and animals in general interacting in an environment of considerably less social complexity. Continue reading