The Dilemma of the Cooperative Gene

By J.D. Alt, New Economic Perspectives Sep 25, 2013, 12:37 PM 

In the simplest terms, at some level the efforts of human society are being directed by the interaction of two genetic predispositions. The first predisposition views society as a loose-knit group of individuals or family units who are competing with each other for scarce resources. The weave of the social agreements that knits these individuals together is for the purpose of establishing and protecting private property rights. Property (the scarce resources) is acquired through competition, and once acquired its ownership is recorded and protected by the judicial and police powers established by the social agreements (the “State”.) In essence, the State has no other purpose.

The second predisposition views society as a tight-knit group of individuals or family units who are cooperating to share scarce resources. From this perspective, the weave of the social agreements is for the purpose of coercing or rewarding individuals to act in the interests of the collective good—and to ensure that the scarce resources are fairly and equitably shared. In this case, the judicial and police powers of the State are directed toward protecting collective rights, with private property rights being just one instance of the collective rights being protected.

Since these two predispositions operate simultaneously within a given society (for example, the United States) it is interesting to consider how they view each other. From the perspective of the “cooperative gene”, the “competitors” are the very individuals who must be coerced or cajoled into acting for the collective good. To the extent that the “competitors” private property claims deny scarce resources to the majority—or deny “life-essential” resources to any individual—those private property claims must be “adjusted” by the State to correct the inequity or protect the collective good.

From the perspective of the “competitive gene”, the idea that the State has any power to coerce an individual to give up some portion or aspect of his private property in the interests of a collective good is, simply put, a horrific aberration of the natural laws of society. This aberration attributes to the State powers it was never intended to have—nor should ever be allowed to have.

It is easy to see these two genetic predispositions jockeying for power in today’s American political arena. The jockeying occurs across a broad range of issues—from gun control to food stamps to protecting the fragile soil of prairie lands to Obamacare. There are two aspects of this I find particularly fascinating. The first is the primary dynamic by which the competitive gene keeps the cooperative gene off balance and largely ineffective. The second is to consider what strategy the cooperative gene might employ to more effectively achieve its mission.

“Money” is a Scarce Commodity

The dominance of the competitive gene depends almost entirely upon its controlling the social-political narrative about “money”. From its perspective, of course, “money”—like everything else individuals compete for and take possession of—must be a scarce commodity. Only if this is true is the competitive gene able to maintain dominance by competing for that commodity and, by winning possession of it, prevent the cooperative gene from commanding resources for the collective good.

For the competitive gene, it is conceptually unacceptable—or, perhaps more accurately, inconceivable—that the State should have the power to create and issue “money” by fiat. If that were allowed, the entire structure of the competitive gene’s position of power would be undermined: The State, instead of being directed by the competitive gene to use its powers exclusively to protect private property rights, could—in the interest of the cooperative gene and the collective good—actively seek to redistribute resources by issuing currency to individuals who had not “earned” (i.e. properly competed for) it. In short, if the State were allowed to issue money by fiat, it would suddenly be able to command and control resources under sway of the cooperative gene—resources which the competitive gene considers (by virtue of the natural laws of competition) to be exclusively its own.

The possibility of the State issuing money by fiat is an existential dilemma for the competitive gene for the simple reason that, in fact, this is what the State actually does every minute of every hour of the week. What is remarkable is the extent to which the competitive gene has not only been able to keep this fact hidden from the cooperative gene—but has actually replaced its factuality with a substitute narrative that enriches and empowers the competitive gene at every turn. This has been accomplished, for the most part, by the deft manipulation of a cognitive dissonance from which the cooperative gene habitually suffers. To see this dissonance, let’s back up for a moment to our initial observations about the goals of the competitive and cooperative genes.

For the competitive gene, human society is bluntly straightforward and simple: people compete for scarce resources and the social agreements (the State) protect the winners from having their winnings raided by the losers. The ethics of this—the right and wrong in it—have simply to do with the fairness of the competition. As long as the competition is “fair”, the outcome is in accord with the basic rules of nature, and there should be no room for complaint.

In contrast, the conceptual formula which the cooperative gene must resolve is exponentially more complex and nuanced. What is the “collective good”, and by what process is it defined? What is an “equitable” distribution of resources—is it simply an equal distribution, or is it a distribution based on “need”, and if so, how is “need” to be measured? Is it not true that the collective good surely must include the idea that what belongs to one man cannot be taken by, or coercively given to, another? If an able-bodied person is not willing to contribute to the collective good, should he receive a distributed share of the resources? Or should he be to some degree excluded—and if so, to what degree and in what manner?

The complexity and ambiguity of these questions makes it difficult for the cooperative gene to act decisively. It is like a deer transfixed in the glaring headlights of the competitive gene’s single-minded aggressiveness. Nowhere is this cognitive dissonance more blinding or crippling to the cooperative gene than in its understanding of “money”. And it is precisely on this point the competitive gene so ruthlessly takes the advantage.

The cooperative gene’s “monetary dissonance” begins with its agreement that “money” is a scarce resource. The reason it accepts this premise, apparently, is the intuitive observation that everything in the world is a scarce resource, and therefore money must be as well. Every cooperative gene has to balance its own checkbook and pay its own debts. In doing these things on a personal level, it becomes observationally “true” that money is both finite and scarce. The competitive gene, in turn, does everything in its power to reinforce this seemingly intuitive logic: It makes certain that several times daily the following narrative is stated, preferably in as many different contexts as possible:

Since “money” is scarce and competed for by private individuals, the only way the State can acquire money (for the purposes of commanding resources for the collective good) is by collecting taxes or selling bonds to the private individuals who have competed successfully and amassed quantities of the scarce commodity. Sovereign spending for the collective good, therefore, can only proceed by spending “the taxpayer’s money”—and sovereign borrowing creates a debt burden which the “taxpayers” ultimately have to repay.

What the cooperative gene apparently doesn’t realize is that in buying into this narrative, its genetically predisposed mission becomes essentially impossible. It is impossible because the cooperative gene has agreed, in essence, that “money” cannot be created through cooperation, but only acquired through competition. It has set itself up in the position of having to compete (with an aggressively competitive gene) for a finite quantity of “money”. The impossibility is magnified by the fact that the competitive gene, through two ingenious tactical maneuvers, controls the “quantity” of money which the cooperative gene can compete for. The first maneuver is adding a clause to the social agreement requiring, by law, that the sovereign government sell bonds (borrow dollars) in an amount equal to any sovereign spending over and above what is collected in taxes. The second maneuver is adding an addendum which establishes a specific debt ceiling limiting what the sovereign government can ultimately borrow.

The competitive gene’s substitute narrative is now encoded in the social agreement, and the cooperative gene is forever burdened with the need to “spend taxpayers dollars” or “borrow dollars the taxpayers will have to repay” each time it wishes to more equitably distribute resources or create collective goods. Given this burden, not only is the competitive gene advantageously positioned to harshly ridicule any and all propositions to create collective goods (because they will cost the “taxpayers” more than they can “afford”) it is also positioned to impose an ultimate limit—through the debt “ceiling”—on the creation of public goods entirely. Finally, the competitive gene is (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) conveniently positioned to financially benefit from any sovereign spending that does occur over and above what is collected in taxes—for it is the competitive gene (with its amassed savings) that buys the bonds the sovereign government is now forced to sell.

What can the cooperative gene possibly do?

It’s easy to make long and detailed lists of collective goods the cooperative gene would like to create—or, with greater desperation, would argue must be created to ensure the long-term survival of the collective society itself. It’s also logical to assume that the competitive gene—as a participant in that society—would benefit from these collective goods in equal measure to everyone else and, for that reason, could be swayed with a properly framed argument into a more cooperative mode. This assumption, however, overlooks the fact that the competitive gene is genetically predisposed not to seek benefit through cooperation, but only to seek dominance through competition. A long-term view of collective success is not even on its radar screen; its sights are pointed only down the short-term paths of its own victory.

The first reality, then, which the cooperative gene must acknowledge is that it is never going to persuade the competitive gene to cooperate towards the equitable creation of collective goods. The only strategy available, it seems, is for the cooperative gene to persuade itself that money is neither a commodity, nor is it scarce—that the narrative hammered out by the competitive gene is, at its very roots, a false and self-serving belief system that puts collective society itself at risk.

Given the relationship between “money” and real resources, it is impossible to equitably “share” real resources, and effectively create collective goods, when money is a scarce commodity controlled by competition. The mission of the cooperative gene can only be accomplished when “money” is understood and managed as a sovereign fiat currency. The U.S. mobilization to fight the axis powers in World War II proved this, beyond a doubt, to be true. The question is, will the cooperative gene ever be able to mobilize in America again?

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