Monday, February 2, 2015

The Blurry Line Between Competition and Cooperation

I wrote "The Blurry Line Between Competition and Cooperation," a short article published today at the website of the Library of Economics and Liberty.

If you aren't familiar with this libertarian-leaning website, it has several facets worth checking out regardless of your political persuasions. Along with the short articles like my own, the website includes:
Here are the opening paragraphs of my article: 

What is the opposite of "competition"? If you fear that this is a trick question and run off to check a synonym/antonym dictionary, you will find an answer that probably came to mind in the first place: "cooperation." Indeed, many people view economics as morally suspect because they perceive economics as emphasizing competition, rather than the arguably more virtuous approach of cooperation.
When I bump into this concern, I often respond that economics seeks to analyze the world as it is, not as we might prefer it to be. We live in an economy in which consumers often seek the best deal; workers commonly seek the job with the best mixture of work conditions and compensation; and firms seek higher profits. If you want to discuss the real-world economy, diagnose problems and suggest solutions, the presence of competition and self-interest among individuals and firms is typically a useful working assumption. The study of economics and public policy would be quite different in a hypothetical world of perfect cooperators.
This response typically works, in the sense that the questioner is more or less satisfied with having received an answer. However, I fear that it concedes too much ground. Specifically, it risks conceding that competition and cooperation are, indeed, opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other. But this is a false dichotomy.
And the closing paragraphs:
If both competition and cooperation are understood as voluntary choices (and, after all, "involuntary cooperation" is an oxymoron), then a fully planned economy would be the opposite of both competition and cooperation. When government dictates prices and quantities, a planned economy eliminates the incentives of market participants—whether suppliers, producers, or consumers—either to compete or to cooperate.
Those of us who self-identify as economists should not wear the terminology of "competition" as a badge of shame, while wistfully contemplating a presumed ideal of cooperation. For the study of economics, as in the real-world economy, the concepts and practices of competition and cooperation are inevitably interlocking.