Humans, like all animals, form cooperative groups to competefor limited resources. All life is ultimately competitive, becausethe natural tendency of any population is to explode, althoughit is kept in check by the limited food supply (and other factors).Because there are more animals than food, animals must competeto survive. In situations where the food supply is somehow sufficient,deadly competition falls. Liberals therefore advocate the creationof a sustainable economy, where the population is kept constant(through birth control) and resources are used no faster thanthey can be replaced. The result will be a more cooperative andcivil society.
In the debate over what type of society is best, conservativesgenerally favor more competitive societies, whereas liberals favormore cooperative ones. Let's attempt to see which side is correct,by reviewing the fundamentals of competition and cooperation:
The origins of competition
Perhaps the first thing to note is that all life is ultimatelycompetitive. For many centuries, biologists have known that thenatural tendency of the animal population is to explode, but thelimited food supply keeps it in check. (There are also other limitingfactors, like space, climate, resources, etc.) Because there aremore creatures than food, this means that some will starve todeath. Thus, in order to survive, animals must compete for food,killing each other if need be.
The above observation is one of the most firmly proven facts ofmodern biology. It's implications, however, have been deeply controversial.The 18th century economist Thomas Malthus argued thatgiving more food to the poor was self-defeating, since it wouldonly expand their population and create more of the same hungerand misery that welfare was designed to alleviate. Malthus thereforeargued that welfare programs should be halted. Malthus' proposalsparked a bitter political debate -- the poor charged that hewas heartless, while the rich congratulated him for applying scienceto the issue of welfare. Interestingly, the controversy itselfwas indicative of the class warfare that rages for society's limitedresources.
Likewise, Charles Darwin found the concept of deadly competitionimportant for developing his theories of natural selection andsurvival of the fittest. Darwin theorized that if animals mustcompete to survive, then the winners would be those with the strongesttraits, which would then be passed on to their offspring. Meanwhile,those with weaker traits would be killed before they could breed,and would be dropped from the gene pool. It is important to notethat even if you don't believe in evolution, natural selectionindisputably occurs in all other competitive systems. These rangefrom individual firms competing on the free market to individualworkers competing for job promotions. Indeed, the fact that naturalselection occurs everywhere else is a strong argument that itoccurs in biology as well.
Natural selection has developed in humans a natural desire tocompete. Those with non-competitive natures would have lost theirstruggle for survival, and disappeared from the gene pool a longtime ago. On the other hand, those with an overly intense desireto compete would have become dead heroes, and likewise failedto pass on their traits. Thus, a reasonable attraction to competitionis both healthy and natural.
The competitiveness of humanity has worked itself even into ourmost basic definitions of the social sciences. Economicsis formally defined as the study of "the efficient allocationof scarce resources among competing uses." (2) Politicsis defined as the "relations between special interestgroups competing for limited resources." (3) War is a violentcompetition for resources -- especially land -- hence Karl vonClausewitz' famous remark that "War is nothing more thanthe continuation of politics by other means." Because competitionsare won by those with the most power, political scienceis defined as "An academic discipline which studies powerand the distribution of power in different types of politicalsystems." (4) Even though these different fields have takendifferent routes to reach the same conclusion, the idea that humanscompete for limited resources is one that elegantly and coherentlyunites the social sciences.
The origins of cooperation
But imagine what it would be like to live in a society whereeach individual competes against everyone else, without any cooperationat all. You wouldn't dare walk outside, for your neighbor couldshoot you and take all your property. Nor could you rely on thepolice to protect you, since law enforcement is a form of socialcooperation. In a perfectly competitive world, only the strongestor luckiest would survive.
But what if you were fortunate enough to be one of the strongestor luckiest? After killing off most of society, you would onlyfind yourself among survivors who were highly competent killersthemselves, and the terror would start anew. And even if you emergedthe final victor, the rewards would be slight… how rich andsatisfied can you be when you're a hermit?
All species avoid this bleak scenario through cooperation. Among humans,cooperation can be divided into two categories: friendly and hostile.An example of friendly cooperation is the alliances you join tocompete more efficiently against other individuals or groups.A good example is the business firm, where employees take specialized,interdependent jobs and work together to compete on the free market.The result is higher quality products and greater work efficiencythan if they competed alone.
Hostile cooperation, on the other hand, is what exists betweencompetitors. This may seem paradoxical, yet there is a good reasonwhy competitors often cooperate with each other: the rewards aregreater. For example, if everyone fights for a piece of the pie,then the fight may become so costly that the pie will be nearlygone when it comes time to divide it. It's much better to forgetthe fight and come to an agreement from the very beginning. Anexample of hostile cooperation is family members who are contestinga million-dollar will. If they fight for the money too hard, thenno one will get any, because it will all go to their lawyers'fees. Hence, it's in their interest to strike a deal.
As with competition, a moderated desire to cooperate is naturaland healthy. Those with non-cooperative natures would have verylow survival rates, as would those who cooperated so much thatthey did not look out after their own self-interests in a competitiveworld. It is for this reason that people take a healthy enjoymentin belonging to a group, practicing teamwork, helping others,etc.
The interplay between competition and cooperation
Nature has divided all life into natural alliances that competefor survival: namely, species. Members of the same species generallydo not kill each other in their fight for limited resources, butinstead work together to kill members of other species.
However, cooperation within species is not as perfect as it wouldseem. Even in normal times, there is subdued competition withinthe group, as members vie for positions of power and status. Onefamous example is primates, who divide themselves into alpha apes,beta apes, etc. It is interesting to note that among primates,male status is acquired through conflict. Among females, however,the opposite occurs: conflicts are resolved by the female's status.Hierarchies are found in countless species, but they are especiallyextreme in humans.
Competition within the group becomes more severe as resourcesbecome scarcer. When the situation becomes desperate enough, membersof the same species are perfectly capable of turning on each otherand killing each other. Just one example is the preying mantis,a specie which solves the problem of scarcity by allowing thefemale to eat the male after mating. Another is the chimpanzee,the closest human relative. From her long-term studies in Africa,Jane Goodall has reported that chimps sometimes divide into tribes,whereupon the larger kills the smaller.
Humans are no different. War is an obvious example of deadly competitionwithin the human species, but most people don't realize that thesame continues even during times of "peace." In ourcompetitive economy, those who lack the skills, education, talentor opportunity to compete well become poor. And the poor sufferfrom death rates that are at least six times higher than the rich.(5) This higher death rate is due to a lack of resources: namely,health care, nutritious food, toxic-free environments, winterheating, information and education, and countless other meansand devices that would protect and prolong their lives.
Here, critics may object that the above observation is based ona faulty assumption. We do not live in a zero-sum economy (wheresomeone's gain is necessarily someone else's loss). We actuallylive in a (slightly) positive-sum economy, where the standardof living is rising for everyone. This is certainly true, butour standard of living grows extremely slowly -- whereas the populationpressing against it tries to grow much faster. Therefore it'sstill quite possible for a positive-sum economy to experiencedeadly competition for limited resources. To understand this evenmore clearly, let's look at the larger picture:
Carrying capacity is what biologists call the limited abilityof the land to sustain a population. This includes the amountof available food, water, resources and space, as well as thehospitality of the climate, the presence of other predators, etc.Needless to say, the greater the land's carrying capacity, thegreater the population it can sustain.
Throughout most of human history, the carrying capacity of theland has been quite low, with humans increasing it only slowlyand painfully. They accomplished this by inventing new forms ofproductive technology, like the plow, the mill, the granary, etc.But growth in productivity was far too slow to accommodate allthe humans born into the world. The result was frequent starvation,famine and deadly competition for resources. To resolve this,many societies frequently practised birth control, ranging fromabortion to infanticide.
But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18thcentury, the land's carrying capacity soared. Through better scienceand technology, humans have learned how to tap the earth's resourcesat an ever growing rate. The result has been a population explosion.It took from the dawn of humanity until the year 1800 for theearth's population to reach 1 billion. But by 1960 it had alreadyreached 3 billion, and by 1998 it will reach 6 billion.
This trend has two ominous implications. First, dramatically increasingthe land's carrying capacity may have raised the individual'sstandard of living, but it has also increased the number of individualscompeting for these new resources. Therefore, deadly competitionremains a problem.
Second, the earth's resources are ultimately limited, and it isabsolutely inevitable that our carrying capacity will one daystop growing, and even shrink. What will happen then? Biologistsalready know the answer, from their historical observations ofspecies that are hit by shrinking resources. The result will bea sickening plunge in the population, as famine, disease, warand other deadly competition take their toll.
As long as birth control keeps the population below the land'scarrying capacity, or humans can somehow increase carrying capacityforever, then deadly competition is greatly reduced. People canlive their entire lives without resorting to war, murder, or evensubjecting the poor to mortal deprivations. Unfortunately, oncethe population starts pressing against the land's limited resourcesagain, deadly competition resumes.
The solution that leftists propose is the creation of a sustainableeconomy. This would involve holding the population constantthrough birth control, and using resources no faster than theycould be replaced. We would then use our abundance and technologyto allow everyone a good standard of living. There would be noneed to compete for survival, and no need to kill anyone to survive.This would tilt the balance towards cooperation, not competition.
Critics charge that humans are naturally competitive animals --after all, they evolved that way. To create a perfectly cooperativesociety, they charge, is both impossible and utopian. This iscertainly true, but fortunately, there is a way around it. Competitionfor survival is only one of the many thousands of ways that humanscompete. Humans also fulfill their desire to compete through games,sports, contests, social status, career status, academic status,even mating. Eliminating the need to compete for survival wouldhardly eliminate the countless other ways that humans compete.Competition could still be used to improve society, even a sustainableone.
The "state of nature"
Many political philosophers -- chief among them John Locke,Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- have attempted to describewhat humans were like in their original "state of nature."These accounts supposedly describe humans in prehistoric times,before the rise of modern society. Most important was their attemptto explain the rise of human competition and cooperation. Thesephilosophers felt that understanding the "state of nature"would tell us how to run a more enlightened society.
Most of these accounts were scientifically false (which oughtto be obvious even to the non-scientist, since these accountscompletely disagree with each other). Nonetheless, they continueto be highly regarded by many modern political philosophers. Hereis how the "Big Three" described the "state ofnature:"
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Chandra Bhushan on 2009-03-07 02:45:44 wrote,
An eye opener for career aspirants