« Average Weekly Hours | Main | links for 2009-07-12 »

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Trumped by Darwin?"

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 despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.

In Darwin’s framework, then,... [c]ompetition, to be sure, sometimes guides individual behavior in ways that benefit society as a whole. But not always.

Individual and group interests are almost always in conflict when rewards to individuals depend on relative performance, as in the antlers arms race. In the marketplace, such reward structures are the rule, not the exception. The income of investment managers, for example, depends mainly on the amount of money they manage, which in turn depends largely on their funds’ relative performance. Relative performance affects many other rewards in contemporary life. ...

In cases like these, relative incentive structures undermine the invisible hand. To make their funds more attractive to investors, money managers create complex securities that impose serious, if often well-camouflaged, risks on society. But when all managers take such steps, they are mutually offsetting. No one benefits, yet the risk of financial crises rises sharply. ...

It’s the same with athletes who take anabolic steroids. ...

If male elk could vote to scale back their antlers by half, they would have compelling reasons for doing so, because only relative antler size matters. Of course, they have no means to enact such regulations.

But humans can and do. ... Darwin has identified the rationale for much of the regulation we observe in modern societies — including steroid bans in sports, safety and hours regulation in the workplace, product safety standards and the myriad restrictions typically imposed on the financial sector.

Ideas have consequences. The uncritical celebration of the invisible hand by Smith’s disciples has undermined regulatory efforts to reconcile conflicts between individual and collective interests in recent decades, causing considerable harm to us all. ...

[And, again, for those who might be interested, see also Paul Krugman's: What Economists Can Learn from Evolutionary Theorists Synopsis.]

    Posted by on Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 06:43 PM in Economics, Methodology, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (35)


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.