Robert Frank returns to the point he made in Alpha Markets, i.e. that Charles Darwin provides the "true intellectual foundation" for economics. Though the example this time is male elk rather than bull elephant seals, the central point – and it’s one worth giving more thought to – is that "Individual and group interests are almost always in conflict when rewards to individuals depend on relative performance." In these situations, which occur frequently in economic and social relationships, the assumption in neoclassical economic models that the maximization of self-interest is consistent with the maximization of social interest does not hold, and failure to recognize this has " undermined regulatory efforts … causing considerable harm to us all":
The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?, by Robert Frank, Commentary, NY Times: If asked to identify the intellectual founder of their discipline, most economists today would probably cite Adam Smith. But that will change. … Charles Darwin … tracks economic reality much more closely. …
Smith’s basic idea was that business owners … have powerful incentives to introduce improved product designs and cost-saving innovations. These moves bolster innovators’ profits in the short term. But rivals respond by adopting the same innovations, and the resulting competition gradually drives down prices and profits. In the end, Smith argued, consumers reap all the gains.
The central theme of Darwin’s narrative was that competition favors traits and behavior according to how they affect the success of individuals, not species or other groups. As in Smith’s account, traits that enhance individual fitness sometimes promote group interests. For example, a mutation for keener eyesight in hawks benefits not only any individual hawk that bears it, but also makes hawks more likely to prosper as a species.
In other cases, however, traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups. For instance, a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles … for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And