Spectrum Five: Competition vs. Cooperation


Humans, like all animals, form cooperative groups to compete for limited resources. All life is ultimately competitive, because the natural tendency of any population is to explode, although it is kept in check by the limited food supply (and other factors). Because there are more animals than food, animals must compete to survive. In situations where the food supply is somehow sufficient, deadly competition falls. Liberals therefore advocate the creation of a sustainable economy, where the population is kept constant (through birth control) and resources are used no faster than they can be replaced. The result will be a more cooperative and civil society.


In the debate over what type of society is best, conservatives generally favor more competitive societies, whereas liberals favor more 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 ultimately competitive. For many centuries, biologists have known that the natural tendency of the animal population is to explode, but the limited food supply keeps it in check. (There are also other limiting factors, like space, climate, resources, etc.) Because there are more creatures than food, this means that some will starve to death. Thus, in order to survive, animals must compete for food, killing each other if need be. (1)

The above observation is one of the most firmly proven facts of modern biology. It's implications, however, have been deeply controversial. The 18th century economist Thomas Malthus argued that giving more food to the poor was self-defeating, since it would only expand their population and create more of the same hunger and misery that welfare was designed to alleviate. Malthus therefore argued that welfare programs should be halted. Malthus' proposal sparked a bitter political debate -- the poor charged that he was heartless, while the rich congratulated him for applying science to the issue of welfare. Interestingly, the controversy itself was indicative of the class warfare that rages for society's limited resources.

Likewise, Charles Darwin found the concept of deadly competition important for developing his theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Darwin theorized that if animals must compete to survive, then the winners would be those with the strongest traits, 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 note that even if you don't believe in evolution, natural selection indisputably occurs in all other competitive systems. These range from individual firms competing on the free market to individual workers competing for job promotions. Indeed, the fact that natural selection occurs everywhere else is a strong argument that it occurs in biology as well.

Natural selection has developed in humans a natural desire to compete. Those with non-competitive natures would have lost their struggle for survival, and disappeared from the gene pool a long time ago. On the other hand, those with an overly intense desire to compete would have become dead heroes, and likewise failed to pass on their traits. Thus, a reasonable attraction to competition is both healthy and natural.

The competitiveness of humanity has worked itself even into our most basic definitions of the social sciences. Economics is formally defined as the study of "the efficient allocation of scarce resources among competing uses." (2) Politics is defined as the "relations between special interest groups competing for limited resources." (3) War is a violent competition for resources -- especially land -- hence Karl von Clausewitz' famous remark that "War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means." Because competitions are won by those with the most power, political science is defined as "An academic discipline which studies power and the distribution of power in different types of political systems." (4) Even though these different fields have taken different routes to reach the same conclusion, the idea that humans compete for limited resources is one that elegantly and coherently unites the social sciences.

The origins of cooperation

But imagine what it would be like to live in a society where each individual competes against everyone else, without any cooperation at all. You wouldn't dare walk outside, for your neighbor could shoot you and take all your property. Nor could you rely on the police to protect you, since law enforcement is a form of social cooperation. In a perfectly competitive world, only the strongest or luckiest would survive.

But what if you were fortunate enough to be one of the strongest or luckiest? After killing off most of society, you would only find yourself among survivors who were highly competent killers themselves, and the terror would start anew. And even if you emerged the final victor, the rewards would be slight… how rich and satisfied 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 to compete 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 efficiency than if they competed alone.

Hostile cooperation, on the other hand, is what exists between competitors. This may seem paradoxical, yet there is a good reason why competitors often cooperate with each other: the rewards are greater. For example, if everyone fights for a piece of the pie, then the fight may become so costly that the pie will be nearly gone when it comes time to divide it. It's much better to forget the fight and come to an agreement from the very beginning. An example of hostile cooperation is family members who are contesting a million-dollar will. If they fight for the money too hard, then no 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 natural and healthy. Those with non-cooperative natures would have very low survival rates, as would those who cooperated so much that they did not look out after their own self-interests in a competitive world. It is for this reason that people take a healthy enjoyment in belonging to a group, practicing teamwork, helping others, etc.

The interplay between competition and cooperation

Nature has divided all life into natural alliances that compete for survival: namely, species. Members of the same species generally do not kill each other in their fight for limited resources, but instead work together to kill members of other species.

However, cooperation within species is not as perfect as it would seem. Even in normal times, there is subdued competition within the group, as members vie for positions of power and status. One famous 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 especially extreme in humans.

Competition within the group becomes more severe as resources become scarcer. When the situation becomes desperate enough, members of the same species are perfectly capable of turning on each other and killing each other. Just one example is the preying mantis, a specie which solves the problem of scarcity by allowing the female 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 competition within the human species, but most people don't realize that the same continues even during times of "peace." In our competitive economy, those who lack the skills, education, talent or opportunity to compete well become poor. And the poor suffer from 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, winter heating, information and education, and countless other means and devices that would protect and prolong their lives.

Here, critics may object that the above observation is based on a faulty assumption. We do not live in a zero-sum economy (where someone's gain is necessarily someone else's loss). We actually live in a (slightly) positive-sum economy, where the standard of living is rising for everyone. This is certainly true, but our standard of living grows extremely slowly -- whereas the population pressing against it tries to grow much faster. Therefore it's still quite possible for a positive-sum economy to experience deadly competition for limited resources. To understand this even more clearly, let's look at the larger picture:

Carrying capacity is what biologists call the limited ability of the land to sustain a population. This includes the amount of available food, water, resources and space, as well as the hospitality of the climate, the presence of other predators, etc. Needless to say, the greater the land's carrying capacity, the greater the population it can sustain.

Throughout most of human history, the carrying capacity of the land has been quite low, with humans increasing it only slowly and painfully. They accomplished this by inventing new forms of productive technology, like the plow, the mill, the granary, etc. But growth in productivity was far too slow to accommodate all the 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 from abortion to infanticide.

But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the land's carrying capacity soared. Through better science and technology, humans have learned how to tap the earth's resources at an ever growing rate. The result has been a population explosion. It took from the dawn of humanity until the year 1800 for the earth's population to reach 1 billion. But by 1960 it had already reached 3 billion, and by 1998 it will reach 6 billion.

This trend has two ominous implications. First, dramatically increasing the land's carrying capacity may have raised the individual's standard of living, but it has also increased the number of individuals competing for these new resources. Therefore, deadly competition remains a problem.

Second, the earth's resources are ultimately limited, and it is absolutely inevitable that our carrying capacity will one day stop growing, and even shrink. What will happen then? Biologists already know the answer, from their historical observations of species that are hit by shrinking resources. The result will be a sickening plunge in the population, as famine, disease, war and other deadly competition take their toll.

As long as birth control keeps the population below the land's carrying capacity, or humans can somehow increase carrying capacity forever, then deadly competition is greatly reduced. People can live their entire lives without resorting to war, murder, or even subjecting the poor to mortal deprivations. Unfortunately, once the population starts pressing against the land's limited resources again, deadly competition resumes.

The solution that leftists propose is the creation of a sustainable economy. This would involve holding the population constant through birth control, and using resources no faster than they could be replaced. We would then use our abundance and technology to allow everyone a good standard of living. There would be no need 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 cooperative society, they charge, is both impossible and utopian. This is certainly true, but fortunately, there is a way around it. Competition for survival is only one of the many thousands of ways that humans compete. 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 would hardly eliminate the countless other ways that humans compete. Competition could still be used to improve society, even a sustainable one.

The "state of nature"

Many political philosophers -- chief among them John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- have attempted to describe what 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 attempt to explain the rise of human competition and cooperation. These philosophers 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 ought to be obvious even to the non-scientist, since these accounts completely disagree with each other). Nonetheless, they continue to be highly regarded by many modern political philosophers. Here is how the "Big Three" described the "state of nature:"

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Hobbes correctly identified that humans were locked in a deadly competition for limited resources. But he misdescribed the "state of nature" as an anarchic, chaotic, individualistic world where people were engaged in a "war of everyone against everyone." Thus, Hobbes believed life in the state of nature was "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short." To resolve this, humans agreed to cooperate for survival, by agreeing to surrender some of their freedom in return for peace and stability. They did this by creating a social contract -- that is, a large group agreement to cooperate and abide by the laws of the government. However, Hobbes believed that this government should take the form of a monarchy, not a democracy.

The problem with Hobbes' account, beyond the obvious one, is that humans have never lived in a chaotic, anarchic "war of everyone against everyone." Group behavior predates the rise of humans -- it exists in nearly all species everywhere. This includes the practice of hierarchy within the group as well. Even in the earliest human primates, paleontologists have found evidence of interdependent, cooperative group behavior. Modern society is merely an evolved form of this behavior.

John Locke (1632-1704): By contrast, Locke's "state of nature" was an idyllic world of freedom, equality and consideration of other people's rights. He wrote that the "state of nature" is governed by a "law of nature," which humans can discover through reason. Through his own reasoning, Locke concluded that humans were "by nature free, equal and independent." Furthermore, natural law obligated that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions."

Locke's writings are beset with numerous contradictions and difficulties. One of these is his view of the social contract. On one hand, he presents the social contract as an improvement over the state of nature. However, it is not clear why individuals would want to leave such an idyllic state of nature in the first place. Locke does admit that the state of nature can easily degenerate into a state of war, which some philosophers claim was Locke's justification for the social contract. However, this would still contradict Locke's claim that the state of nature was idyllic.

As an ideal, Locke's state of nature is certainly laudable, but as a description of prehistoric humans, it is flat wrong. All life is a deadly competition for limited resources, which means that humans must violate Locke's proposed "natural rights" of life, liberty and property just to survive. And even within cooperative groups, the natural feature is hierarchy, not equality. It certainly might be possible to engineer societies that increase cooperation and equality, but such perfect ideals are not to be found in nature.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778): The writings of this French philosopher were meant as a rebuttal to Hobbes and Locke, but Rousseau's arguments were no more scientifically accurate. Rousseau argued that humans who lived in the "state of nature" were solitary and non-competitive. They had no need or desire to compete because their population was small, which made the earth's resources relatively plentiful. Indeed, Rousseau would argue that human competition, inequality and misery only increased as the population and modern society grew. He thus evoked the image of the "noble savage," the individual who lives alone in the wild and is more dignified and content than his socialized relatives. Rousseau thus admitted that there was no reason for humans to flee the state of nature for the social contract. Instead, modern society developed naturally, without anyone purposely creating it to fulfill a conscious need. To Rousseau, modern society did have some good points, but they were offset by as many bad ones.

Again, there is little in Rousseau's writing that would withstand the scrutiny of modern scientists. Early humans were less numerous because their survival technology was primitive, and their death rate was phenomenally high. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were no more than wandering nomads and hunters and gathers. It was only 10,000 years ago that human technology reached the point where they could settle in one place and begin the Agricultural Revolution. It was this event that solved ancient problems of scarcity and allowed the human population to start building to its current explosion.

Rousseau's "noble savage" is also pure fiction. Sociologists know of several documented cases of feral children (or children raised in complete isolation), and all behaved more like wild animals than humans. They could not speak, reacted to humans with fear and hostility, walked hunched or on all fours, tore into their food like wild animals, were apathetic to their surroundings, and were unable to keep even the lowest standards of personal hygiene. (6) This is a remarkable indication of how much the nobility of humans derives from society, not the inherent traits of individuals.

Despite these inaccuracies, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau have had a major influence on centuries of political philosophers, including the U.S. Founding Fathers. Many people continue to appeal to them as authorities, and view their teachings as particularly enlightened. But if they reached some correct conclusions (like the call for democracy), it was not because these conclusions flowed logically from their mistaken premises. Given their serious flaws, one should approach their work critically.

Return to Overview


1. Michael Gilpin, "Population Dynamics," The 1995 Grolier Encyclopedia. Gilpin cites the following bibliography: Andrewartha, H.G., and Birch, L.C., The Ecological Web (1986); Begon, M., and Mortimer, M., Population Ecology, 2d rev. ed. (1986); Chapman, D.G., and Gallucci, V.F., eds., Quantitative Population Dynamics(1981); Hutchinson, G. Evelyn, An Introduction to Population Biology (1978); Smith, Robert L., Ecology and Field Biology, 3d ed. (1980); Solomon, Maurice E., Population Dynamics (1976); Whittaker, Robert, Communities and Ecosystems, 2d ed. (1975).

2. Stephen Casler, Introduction to Economics (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 3.

3. The term "politics" is so general that it has inspired countless different definitions, many of them unrelated to each other. I have chosen a composite definition that is based on the most recurring themes. Perhaps the most common is that politics is the "socialization of conflict" (E.E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People, 1960). Conflicts are inevitably struggles of power, which are almost always over resources (ultimately). Resources are doubly important, because they are not only the goal of the conflict, but the source of each side's power. This helps us understand the following definition of politics: "The pursuit and exercise of the political power necessary to distribute patronage and other government benefits." (Jay M. Shafritz, "Politics," The HarperCollins Dictionary of American Government and Politics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 368.) Also: "A political system is any persistent pattern of human relationship that involves (to a significant extent) power, rule or authority." (Gordon Marshall, "Political Socialization," The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 401.) In The Group Basis of Politics (1952), Earl Latham famously described politics as the referee of interest group struggle, responsible for "ratifying the victories of the successful coalitions and recording the terms of the surrenders, compromises and conquests in the form of statutes."

4. Gordon Marshall, "Political Science," The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 400.

5. In 1986, researchers studied two groups of men between the ages of 25 and 64: those that made less than $9,000 a year, and those that made more than $25,000. They found that poor white men had 6.7 times the death rate of rich white men, and poor black men had 5.4 times the death rate of rich black men. Robert Pear, "Big Health Gap, Tied to Income, Is Found in U.S." The New York Times, July 8, 1993, pp. A1. For other studies tying higher death rates to poverty, see George Davey Smith and others, "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: I. White Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 486-496; George Davey Smith and others, "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: II. Black Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 497-504; Gopal K. Singh and Stella M. Yu, "US Childhood Mortality, 1950 through 1993: Trends and Socioeconomic Differentials," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 505-512; C. Wayne Sells and Robert Wm. Blum, "Morbidity and Mortality among US Adolescents: An Overview of Data and Trends," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 513-519.

6. R. Brown, Words and Things: An Introduction to Language (New York: Free Press, 1958), Chapter 5; Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and the Problems of Human Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972); Harlan Lane, The Wild Boy of Aveyron (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Harlan Lane and R. Pillard, The Wild Boy of Berundi: A Study of an Outcast Child (New York: Random House, 1978); J.A.L. Singh and Robert Zingg, Wolf Children and Feral Man, (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).