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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, November 17, 2023

TGIF: Cooperation versus Bigotry

We who value individualism, freedom, and social cooperation as essential to flourishing should be distressed by the hostile bigotry that has lately reared its ugly head, to some uncertain extent, on the streets and campuses of America and abroad. This is not new. In America we've seen it intermittently in both directions on racial issues just in this century. It seems related to an intolerant, zero-nuance, take-no-prisoners, and glib attitude among many contenders over racial, religious, and ethnic controversies.

Now it is showing itself in ugly group chants and more personal communication calling for violence against Jews and Arabs, and perhaps even direct harassment and assault.  A couple of people have died. Anti-Semitism and anti-Arabism should be off-limits. Regardless of the target, the unrestrained hostility is frightening on many counts, not least of which is its ominous implications for spontaneous social /market cooperation..

I couldn't possibly know whether these clashes are common or just fringe opportunism -- let's hope the latter. In the heat of a controversy it is possible to misread innocent events and words. The principle of charitable interpretation ought to apply unless solid evidence to the contrary revokes it. We should also be aware that government officials and the news media, for obvious reasons, might be inclined to exaggerate. 

The point is that much could be at stake if impressions are not exaggerated -- including the trust and cooperation that characterize market-oriented societies. Social strife can have severe consequences. Even public demonstrations can create rippling animosity.

I am not suggesting, of course, that limits on free speech and the press would be in order in the name of social cooperation. That would make no sense. For one thing, hate-speech prohibitions and the like would bolster state power with vague statutes: governments have been major disrupters of cooperation, market and otherwise, throughout history. Contrary to what we teach our children, words can hurt, but it's not the kind of hurt that justifies retaliatory force. Threatened and initiated force, though, is another story.

Similarly, restrictions on immigration and the internet, along with enhanced government monitoring and data collection, would be ludicrously ironic since those are the means of interfering with cooperation.

The right and wrong of foreign conflicts, and U.S. government complicity in them, is separate from my point. Strong convictions and feelings are entirely understandable and proper. But when become collectivist bigotry, civil peace can be put at risk. That should worry anyone who grasps the relationship among social cooperation, markets, and general well-being.

Champions of individualism reject the divisive collectivism displayed in ethnic, racial, and religious hostility. Such feeling flows from the tribalism that is a vestige of a primitive, pre-individualist distant past. A person's natal or otherwise unchosen "membership" in a group says nothing about his or her character, moral principles, or position on controversies. The right to be free of coercion is an individual-based, not group-based principle. Persons can think for themselves. That's individualism, both ethical and methodological. We abandon it at great risk.

As the economist Ludwig von Mises explained in Human Action, which he considered calling "Social Cooperation," civilization began to dawn when the earliest perceptive people realized that strangers could represent not existential threats but potential gains from trade. There lay the road to mutual self-interest and prosperity. It was long ago, but some people haven't yet learned. Samuel Johnson was onto something when he said, "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money."

I'll give Mises the final word on the link between free cooperation and prosperity, and by implication the danger from overwrought polarization (from Human Action, chapter 24, "Harmony and Conflicts of Interest", section 3, "The Harmony of the "Rightly Understood" Interests):

[N]ature does not generate peace and good will.... What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies. A pre-eminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions. Catallactic competition is substituted for biological competition. It makes for harmony of the interests of all members of society. The very condition from which the irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition arise--viz., the fact that all people by and large strive after the same things--is transformed into a factor making for harmony of interests. Because many people or even all people want bread, clothes, shoes, and cars, large-scale production of these goods becomes feasible and reduces the costs of production to such an extent that they are accessible at low prices. The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier.

Let's not have our mutual interest get lost in the heat of controversy.

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