What Biologists don’t get about Cooperation and Capitalism

Marian L. Tupy – January 30, 2018

Competition is an essential part of a capitalist economy. It drives businesses to innovate and to provide consumers with cheaper and better products. If businesses fail to innovate, they go under.

The market place can be a brutal place – just think of the way in which Netflix disposed of Blockbuster. “Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin,” as the American economist Alan H. Meltzer once put it. “It doesn’t work.”

But capitalism is also one the most cooperative of human endeavors. Goods and services are traded among strangers and across vast distances, guided – to a great degree – by the price mechanism and by the reputation of the trading parties. Repeated transactions among trading parties encourage trustworthiness – a moral side product of capitalism that we do not spend enough time talking about, let alone celebrating.

Competition produces winners and losers. As Amazon expanded, for example, neighborhood bookstores shuttered across the United States. Some people thought that was a great tragedy, for bookstores provided a pleasant way to browse through publications and, sometimes, meet interesting people. Ultimately, however, the convenience of the internet, and superior choices and prices, proved to be more important to the average customer. Amazon and its clientele won, while Barnes & Noble lost.

The losers, who emerge from capitalist competition, appear to confirm a zero-sum bias in the human brain. It is for that reason that many people tend to focus on the closed local book store, rather than revel in the falling prices and increased choice made possible by Amazon. Where did that bias come from?

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