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Can Cooperation Replace Competition?

Tags Monopoly and CompetitionValue and Exchange


It has often been stated, and even more frequently implied, that we should choose to cooperate rather than compete in society. For instance, FDR said “Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” Bertrand Russell expressed it even more sharply when he said, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

However, such statements incorporate a false understanding of competition and cooperation in society as either-or choices, rather than recognizing that many supposedly cooperative ventures actually reduce overall social cooperation, while market competition is the peaceful process that leads to better cooperative results than are otherwise achievable.

Few people have expressed this understanding better than F.A. “Baldy” Harper, in “Can Cooperation Replace Competition?” from his 1951 Faith and Freedom. While revisiting his insights will take us back in time, they will move our understanding forward, enabling greater cooperative results in the future.

Competition under Liberty

A considerable degree of cooperation is necessary for a society to rise from barbarism to anything like a modern civilization as we know it. But…cooperation, as distinguished from competition, has no monopoly on virtue…competition will, as a matter of necessity, always be found side by side with cooperation in a free society.

A free society is founded on individual liberty, which means that a person is free to do whatever he desires according to his wisdom and conscience. But…living at peace with one’s neighbors requires that certain rules of conduct be observed…These rules, by which persons may live in peaceful liberty, are those that will allow the maximum of liberty among persons generally; that treat the liberty of the individual as of paramount importance, and the State as nothing more than a mechanism for reducing to the lowest possible point the interference of persons with each other’s freedom; that will provide for equal rights and restrictions for all persons under impartial law.

Economic liberty requires that a person be allowed to keep whatever he produces…rather than to be forced to surrender it to a master by whatever name…as private property.

Mutual Benefits vs. Mutual Predatory Benefits

The true meaning of cooperation is to be found in…the dictionary definition, “...working together for mutual benefit.”

You and I cannot cooperate unless we are both desirous of doing so…if willingness is lacking on either side of the deal, it is no more cooperation than is bank robbery.

Cooperation in its true meaning is consistent with the requirements of a free society. This presumes, of course, that the means of working together for mutual benefit does not take the form of violating the rules of a free society…It presumes that the working together shall not take the form of a monopoly for gaining unfair advantage over others; that it shall not be for thievery in any of its forms; that it shall not be as a means of gaining political power over others. Except for these limitations on cooperative action…cooperation, or the working together for mutual advantage, is proper in the free society.

Working together for mutual advantage in this manner is of benefit to the participants without depending for its advantage on harming others. That is the essence of the distinction between harmful and helpful forms of working together, between collusion and a proper form of cooperation in a free society. Where two persons work together to use their own timber in the building of log cabins to house their families, it is cooperation and does not depend for its advantage on harming others or taking their property. The predations of a gang of wolves, on the other hand, illustrate collusion; the wolves prey on the property of the shepherd, and try to increase their loot by operating in gangs; when persons do the same type of thing, it violates the requirements of cooperation under the rules of a free society even though it is “working together for mutual benefit.”

Like other forms of power for good, cooperation may be used for evil by using it for some sort of violation of the proper rules of a free society.

Competition that Increases Social Cooperation vs. Cooperation that Reduces It

If any measures are taken to force you to work with me…it is not cooperation; it is coercion…The net effect of using force in the attempt to extend cooperation is to reduce, not to increase, the total of cooperation that is practiced in society.

Competition means that a choice is offered…Lack of competition means lack of the freedom of choice. Many cooperative enthusiasts look upon competition as something that should be eliminated by forcing an extension of “cooperation” to displace it…Their ideal is a world where cooperation is practiced to the exclusion of all competition.

In a free society competition is a desirable accompaniment of cooperation…There is the necessity of choice in association, and that involves competition…If you and I decide to cooperate in manning a two-man saw, all other applicants are thereby eliminated from that opportunity to cooperate with either of us.

Since things are limited and since freedom of choice is a requisite to both competition and cooperation, competition must always accompany cooperation in a free society. The choice of where and with whom to cooperate, and where and with whom to compete… must ever face you and me.

Competition, as well as cooperation, is essential to progress. It is the result of choice. If there is to be freedom to cooperate, there must also be freedom to compete…because cooperation at one point becomes competition at another point.

The attempt to eliminate competition, and to widen the area of “cooperation” by force, results in destroying…cooperative practice because it destroys the liberty which is essential to both. It turns a good into an evil, by attempting its expansion by force.

Is It Voluntary?

True cooperation must be voluntary…being voluntary makes it fully compatible with the rules of a free society, provided it is not used as a means of trespass on the liberal rights of others outside the cooperative arrangement.

Competition is an accompaniment of cooperation…Destroying competition by force also destroys cooperation; both take place when choice is allowed in a free society; both are essentials to an advancing civilization and to progress.

A person cannot be forced to cooperate.

F.A. Harper recognized the confusions people operate under with regard to competition and cooperation, and that untying the knot of misunderstanding would loosen the constraints keeping us from advancing social cooperation. We must not forget that “working together for mutual benefit” is often the cover for predatory acts against others, including many who believe they could provide us better terms than those we currently deal with. Liberties are lost in that process. In contrast, we must remember that “If there is to be freedom to cooperate, there must also be freedom to compete,” because the most effective cooperation requires effective competition, in which people are freely allowed to offer their superior goods, services, and organizational approaches in peaceful, voluntary arrangements, without limitations beyond those necessary for individual liberty.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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