D. Boaz, Cooperation is as much a part of capitalism as competition

Defenders of the market process often stress the benefits of competition. The competitive process allows for constant testing, experimenting, and adapting in response to changing situations. It keeps businesses constantly on their toes to serve consumers. Both analytically and empirically, we can see that competitive systems produce better results than centralized or monopoly systems. That’s why, in books, newspaper articles, and television appearances, advocates of free markets stress the importance of the competitive marketplace and oppose restrictions on competition.

But too many people listen to the praise for competition and hear words like hostile, cutthroat, or dog-eat-dog. They wonder whether cooperation wouldn’t be better than such an antagonistic posture toward the world. Billionaire investor George Soros, for instance, writes in the Atlantic Monthly, “Too much competition and too little cooperation can cause intolerable inequities and instability.” He goes on to say that his “main point . . . is that cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition, and the slogan ‘survival of the fittest’ distorts this fact.” Now it should be noted that the phrase “survival of the fittest” is rarely used by advocates of freedom and free markets. It was coined to describe the process of biological evolution and to refer to the survival of the traits that were best suited to the environment; it may well be applicable to the competition of enterprises in the market, but it certainly is never intended to imply the survival of only the fittest individuals in a capitalist system. It is not the friends but the enemies of the market process who use the term “survival of the fittest” to describe economic competition.

What needs to be made clear is that those who say that human beings “are made for cooperation, not competition” fail to recognize that the market is cooperation. Indeed, as discussed below, it is people competing to cooperate.

Individualism and Community Similarly, opponents of classical liberalism have been quick to accuse liberals of favoring “atomistic” individualism, in which each person is an island unto himself, out only for his own profit with no regard for the needs or wants of others. E. J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post has written that modern libertarians believe that “individuals come into the world as fully formed adults who should be held responsible for their actions from the moment of their birth.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a review of Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian that until Murray came along the libertarian vision was “a race of rugged individualists each living in a mountaintop cabin with a barbed wire fence and a ‘No Trespassing’ sign outside.” How he neglected to include “each armed to the teeth” I can’t imagine.

Of course, nobody actually believes in the sort of “atomistic individualism” that professors and pundits like to deride. We do live together and work in groups. How one could be an atomistic individual in our complex modern society is not clear: would that mean eating only what you grow, wearing what you make, living in a house you build for yourself, restricting yourself to natural medicines you extract from plants? Some critics of capitalism or advocates of “back to nature”—like the Unabomber, or Al Gore if he really meant what he wrote in Earth in the Balance—might endorse such a plan. But few libertarians would want to move to a desert island and renounce the benefits of what Adam Smith called the Great Society, the complex and productive society made possible by social interaction. One would think, therefore, that sensible journalists would stop, look at the words they typed, and think to themselves, “I must have misrepresented this position. I should go back and read the libertarian writers again.” In our time this canard—about isolation and atomism—has been very damaging to advocates of the market process. We ought to make it clear that we agree with George Soros that “cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition.” In fact, we consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.

In a free society individuals enjoy natural, imprescriptible rights and must live up to their general obligation to respect the rights of other individuals. Our other obligations are those we choose to assume by contract. It is not just coincidental that a society based on the rights of life, liberty, and property also produces social peace and material well-being. As John Locke, David Hume, and other classical-liberal philosophers demonstrate, we need a system of rights to produce social cooperation, without which people can achieve very little. Hume wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature that the circumstances confronting humans are (1) our self-interestedness, (2) our necessarily limited generosity toward others, and (3) the scarcity of resources available to fulfill our needs. Because of those circumstances, it is necessary for us to cooperate with others and to have rules of justice—especially regarding property and exchange—to define how we can do so.