Competition and Cooperation

Marvin MillerSubmitted by Marvin Miller

People across the political spectrum favor competition, at least in principle, though people in business are happiest when they don’t have competition. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Sherman and Clayton anti-trust laws were passed with the intent of preventing monopolistic restriction of business competition. (It didn’t work–only two major monopolies were broken up: Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, now ExxonMobil, and AT&T. An oligopoly — control of the market by a few — is as effective in stifling competition as a monopoly is.)

In the real world, competition doesn’t work as it does in the Econ 101 classroom. Businesses don’t compete as theory says they do, trying to attract customers and workers by offering them a better deal. They compete for investors by being more profitable than their competitors through lower labor costs and greater revenues. Russo’s salad bar was priced at $1 per pound less than Stop & Shop’s, five minutes away. So Russo’s raised their price to equal Stop & Shop’s.

Competition for scarce resources is a key element of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. In any environment there aren’t enough such resources to sustain all organisms, so those best adapted to secure what they need will survive and reproduce. Each organism is presumed to be in competition with all others that use the same resources.

Those who extend these ideas to human society are often called social Darwinists. In this view all of us are in competition with one another. Such an individualistic view is compatible with the capitalistic organization of society, but not with the pre-capitalist feudal society, in which your status is determined by your birth. It’s not surprising that these individualistic ideas rose together with capitalism.

The ethic for this system is “Look out for Number One.” It’s not Felix Adler’s “Bring out the best in others and thereby in yourself.”. That’s an ethic for a society based on cooperation.

There’s plenty of evidence of cooperation in nature, though social Darwinists tend not to emphasize it. Hives of bees, schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of bison, lichens (combinations of algae and fungi) and insect pollination of plants are examples. Human society and each of its subdivisions could not exist without cooperation. Even competition itself, between entities of any size, whether individual organisms, institutions, or societies, could not exist successfully without the cooperation of the subdivisions of those entities, such as cells, organs, individuals, or groups.

The earliest humans had little or no technology. They interacted only locally and survived by cooperating within their local group. Interactions between local groups were often competitive and hostile. With the advance of technology, the size of the group deemed to be the in-group grew, from clan to tribe to nation. Current technology threatens the destruction of the environment that’s necessary for human life and that of the many other species on which we depend. It makes cooperation on a world-wide scale necessary, but it also makes it possible. The challenge is to adjust our thinking to the present reality.

Global thinking isn’t new. John Donne (1572-1631) wrote “No man is an island…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” What’s new is the urgency of recognizing its truth.