Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

20 April 2011

Capitalism: Freedom to Compete or Freedom to Cooperate?

The enemies of Capitalism and free markets like to describe them as being characterized by dog-eat-dog competition and the survival of the fittest.  Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism provides moral support for Capitalism and hence is subjected to the same criticism.  Before examining the derogatory portions of those claims, let us ask if the free market should be viewed as that part of society in which man has the freedom to cooperate or to associate with others.

Of course, all real freedoms adhere to individuals and each and every individual has the same sovereign rights.  If I have the freedom to cooperate or associate with another person, then I have the right to use my mind to evaluate whether I will enter into a particular cooperation or association with another person and  he has the corresponding right.  If we arrive at a mutual agreement to cooperate or associate, we do so.  If we cannot do so, we go our separate ways and perhaps seek out others with whom we can reach a mutual agreement.  In practice, this means that we seek people out who we can trade values with such that each party believes they are better off because of the trade.  There are innumerable such trades being made in a society and it is perfectly rational for the parties to make such trades in many cases.  The value of living in a society is found in the wealth of such advantageous exchanges.

Such free market trading requires that men be free to use their minds to choose their own values and then to manage their own lives in accordance with their values.  Much of the prejudice against free markets is based on the opinion of elitists that others are not capable of choosing their own values and of managing their own lives.  But let us be frank that if men are not allowed the freedom to choose their own values and manage their own lives, then they are fundamentally enslaved.  There will then be no free market or a very restricted domain will be all that is allowed to the free market.

If there is no free market, what have we lost?  We have lost the ability to manage our own lives according to our own values.  We have also lost the ability to cooperate freely with others in our society or even between societies to trade values for mutual benefit.  We lose the freedom of association which is a freedom to choose with whom we will cooperate or associate and for what reason we will do so.  We lose the freedom to exchange money, goods, services, ideas, friendship, and love.  Of course a restricted society which has begun the process of eliminating the freedom of association tends to do so in the realm of money, goods, and services exchanges if freedom of speech was once well-established.  In many societies freedom of speech has never been well-established and in those societies the exchange of ideas may be among the first exchanges lost.

When it is well-established that the government has control of those exchanges, it can further expand its controls to ideas, friendships, and even love.  In America today, we have some cases in which government already controls ideas.  This is common in government-run schools and colleges, as well as in the workplace.  We have restrictions on friendships in the form of outlawed sexual exchanges, especially if friendship is mixed with the exchange of money.  We have restrictions on love in the form of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.  It is perfectly appropriate to view these restrictions as restrictions on the free market, which is a concept really much broader than the strictly economic concept usually given to it.  The reason is that all of our human relationships are based on an exchange of values and these values need not be economic values.  The values may be friendship, love, and ideas.  In this realm of the free market, it is not competition, as people usually think of it, that most characterizes it.  It is cooperation and willing association.

Returning to the economic marketplace, where goods, services, and ideas are exchanged, the more fundamental action an individual makes a choice about is also one of with whom and for what reason will he cooperate and associate.  His primary motive is not to bury some opponent.  It is to find a way to exchange values with others in such a way that each is made happier by the result.  Of course, he may only be thinking of his own happiness, but then so are those with whom he is trying to arrange the trade.  So, the result is that everyone, to the extent they are rationally using their minds, is better off.

Of course, some people may wish to make trades that others will not choose to make with them and they may be disappointed.  This cannot be helped because everyone has an equal, sovereign right to cooperate or associate with others.  Force cannot then be used to make others enter into exchanges to which they have not agreed.  Those who do not like Capitalism or the free market then proclaim that the disappointed person or persons have been "eaten."  This is a clear exaggeration.  The proposed solution to this disappointment is to have the government use force to make people, who calculated that the disappointed person's proposed trade was bad for them, enter into the exchange nonetheless.  A better alternative to using force would be for the disappointed competitor to establish more reasonable evaluations of his proposed trades with others.  If he is simply not good at arranging certain types of exchanges on a voluntary basis, then he needs to find other types of exchanges which he is better at arranging.  A wealthy free market society is rich in possibilities for many other alternative exchanges.

Government restrictions on free markets take the form of mandates disallowing cooperation between people or forcing unwanted exchanges of values.  Either way, the government is destroying the freedom of association, or we might say the freedom to cooperate, that every sovereign individual has.  I just learned about an example of just such a nefarious government interference upon one of my nieces today.  She is a very good soccer player and a deep-thinking strategist of the game.  She teaches soccer to children in classes operated by a sports store.  The other soccer coaches are paid.  She cannot be paid because of the Child Labor Laws.  She teaches soccer because she loves the game and she likes teaching children.  But, there is clearly no justice in the perhaps well-intentioned law, that keeps her from being paid.  Her freedom to associate with children who want to learn to play soccer well because she might both love teaching it and be remunerated is interfered with by government.  She teaches anyway, but her freedom to choose payment and maximize the values gained is lost.  Of course, she is a child, though a very intelligent and hard-working child.  We have governments which are only too happy to restrict the freedom of adults in very many exchanges as well.  Why not, since our governments think adults are no more able to choose their own values and manage their own lives than they think children can.

Government interferences with the free market always take the form of restrictions on the freedom of association.  It is voluntary cooperation that the government limits to prevent competition or to achieve other goals contrary to the choices made by individuals in the free marketplace.  The reason is that the economic marketplace exists so that people can form partnerships and companies together voluntarily, hire voluntary labor, use capital from voluntary investors, buy equipment, facilities, and supply goods from voluntary venders, acquire knowledge and ideas from cooperating consultants and inventors, buy a technical library, and provide goods, services, and ideas to voluntary clients.  Each of these relationships is characterized by a voluntary exchange of goods, services, or ideas.  Each is an example of the freedom of association.  Each is an example of cooperation.

Of course competition usually occurs in the process.  But, competition in the sense that people usually think of it is not as fundamental as the freedom to cooperate is.  While some people have a surfeit of competitive juices, many are simply seeking out one value after another and care only about the value they gain in any given transaction.  They hope to string together many successful transactions and do very well for themselves.  In many cases, they have no idea with whom or what they are in competition.  For instance, when I quote a material analysis job for a possible client, am I in competition with another materials analysis laboratory, or am I in competition with other alternative uses of the company money?  The company could buy a piece of equipment, pay off a loan costing them interest, or send an employee off for training.  My experience is that most often my real competition is not another materials analysis laboratory.  It is a host of other alternative uses that my possible client has for his money.

It is very hard to conjure up visions of dog-eat-dog competition in this context!  What does become clear in this context is that competition is fundamental to an economic exchange only in the broader context that everyone rationally is placing a value on his values that can be realized in a trade.  It is very hard to see this as evil.  Indeed, this is exactly what the moral man does and it is why he develops a moral code.  He needs a moral code to place relative values on the many possible values he might pursue and might gain in exchanges with others.  Of course the exchanges in question are all exchanges of values, of which economic exchanges are a subset.

Competition exists in the free market because people act to realize value gains in their exchanges with others.  But, the exchange itself is an act of cooperation or association.  There is no way to interfere with the natural competition without losing acts of cooperation and denying the freedom of association.  The act of competition is the act of the evaluation of values.  It is not stabbing someone in the chest.  It is not throwing them in a dungeon and starving them.  These are the things governments do when they interfere with our voluntary exchanges of values whether in the economic free market or in the broader free market.

You may say I am extreme in this assessment, but no, I am seeing the complete context very well.  If a government interferes with my sovereign right to associate with others, it may place a less severe penalty on me for trying to go ahead with a denied exchange.  If I then assert my sovereign right and refuse to take or accept the penalty, the government will ratchet up the use of force on its part and may well have a SWAT team shoot me or imprison me for life.  The real penalty for asserting my sovereign right may well be death or permanent enslavement.  This is clearly evil.

Rational men do not want their societies to go into these sorts of death spirals.  They understand the need to keep their society as free as possible from the use of force, including government-wielded force.  Capitalism is the form society takes when men are free to associate with one another.  Mixed economies deny the freedom to cooperate with others and trample the right of association.  These principles are readily illustrated in Ayn Rand's ingenious novel Atlas Shrugged and in the excellent movie Atlas Shrugged Part I.

No comments: