Thursday, December 3, 2009

Competition versus Cooperation: the final conflict?

“Mutual Aid” by Peter Kropotkin (1902) and comments I read almost everywhere on the internet put me in mind to write on this topic, which is, I think, one of the most important aspects of the transition we are passing through today. What place competition, what role cooperation? Is one mightier than the other? Is that even a valid question? I think so, if only as a titillating appetizer to draw the reader into the debate. It informs this article.

Kropotkin’s book is a masterwork of well written, erudite and scholarly analysis. Not all questions are answered (they never will be), it is not without controversy and no doubt some of it is out of date, but its core thesis – that cooperation is a more effective tactic than competition in the struggle we call “survival of the fittest” – is sound. This is an important observation; it is not, says Kropotkin, that “survival of the fittest” is just another way of saying “competition,” but that there are alternative tactics which can be deployed by living organisms, as they adapt to, and find a rhythm of living within, the environment of which they are a part, whose composition they help make up. Cooperation is a tactic, as is competition, tactics, furthermore, we can compare, understanding each better by virtue of the exercise.

In the early pages of Mutual Aid Kropotkin recounts an interesting story of a zoologist who took a bag full of ants – a cooperative insect – into a field free of ants, and emptied it there. The ants quickly dominated the territory. All solitary insects – beetles, grasshoppers, etc., dropped whatever they were doing and fled for their lives. Kropotkin, explaining this, observes that cooperative animals are capable of courage and self-sacrifice, complex battle tactics and other skills, unlike solitary creatures. Cooperative animals display higher intelligence too, proving capable of otherwise impossible feats, such as termite mounds which have their own air conditioning. Homo sapiens sapiens escaped Earth and put footprints on its satellite.

My thoughts on the matter are simple. We hear often the refrain that humans are competitive by nature, but compared to wolverines, for example, we are not, not if cooperation is the opposite of competition. We are social first, competitive second (what competition really means I come to later). The evidence that we are social is all around us; families, language, culture, art, cities, nation states, the internet, Facebook and so on. None of this would be possible if we were competitive first and foremost, incapable of cooperation and compromise. That this is quite a controversial statement is not lost on me, but is in fact further confirmation of how susceptible to received wisdoms we are. Group-think, “sheeple,” peer pressure, cliques are all further evidence of our social nature. A consensus is arrived at by various means, and then stuck to, or calcified, by various means also. But consensus can be very wrong, no matter how hard won: the Earth was famously once flat; physics experts used to know manned flight was impossible, until two people who had not read the experts’ books proved them wrong. My belief is that our understanding of competition, the consensus we have achieved on it, is likewise flawed, and needs closer inspection via open and honest debate.

The etymology of the word is latin: com and petere, com meaning “together” or “with,” petere “to seek” or “struggle toward.” The origins of competition are therefore social, and its original meaning reflects this; to strive together toward a common objective. It seems we need not be sociopathic about this competition thing, see nature as a Hobbesian battle field of each against all, after which one creature is left alive on a desolate planet, enjoying its last minutes alive as the final victor of The Survival of The Fittest. Surely this is not what nature is all about. Competition can include cooperation, cooperation can include competition. Perhaps they are not opposites. Perhaps economics has a poor understanding of this most essential element of its theory.

A myth has arisen around the notion of competition which is removed from the complicated reality of how things really work. Nature (and there is only nature; nothing is unnatural) is a complex collection of processes, or systems, dynamically interrelating and exchanging energies, doing work, growing and contracting, digesting and egesting, going in and out of balance. Competition is a part of this, as is cooperation, as are other things, but what it is most certainly not is a total, all out war. If it were, something or someone would have won by now. After all, it’s been going on for billions of years. And anyway, what would “victory” actually mean? What is the point of destroying things on which we depend? What is victory, exactly?

In economics there is the myth of perfect competition, out of which, as well as out of the misunderstood work of Darwin and the foolish “selfish gene” idea, we have a generalized idea of competition, in the economic realm, as selfish, efficient and ruthless, as the fuel that powers The Invisible Hand which ensures its effect is good, despite people always acting on their own self-interest. Were the economic choice between “competition” in this sense, and State run interference, I’d take competition every time, but I think we are erecting a false dichotomy when we make this comparison, when we present ourselves with this black and white choice.

There can be no perfect competition, and there must be a State of some kind. Economic activity is dependent upon humans coming together to exchange stuff. Humans coming together is how States form. Human activity becomes socially organized, rather than staying chaotic and wholly unpredictable, for the simple reason that humans prefer it that way: we are social, so we agree upon rules. But we are “flawed” too, often "irrational," and cannot be perfectly informed about the goings on in the market place, so in the messy hubbub of buying and selling, in that organic and multi-faceted process, dominant parties (aka The Successful) emerge. In that all trade is predicated on the necessary rationing out of scarce resources, and in that a medium of exchange is necessary to enable complex trade, we have here a system – the market – which can only lead to monopolies and/or cartels, which themselves could only be inhibited by perfect competition, which itself is impossible. Therefore the market can develop in no other way. Systemically, inherently, it is about securing differential advantage. There is no other way to play this game, there is no other way this game can play out.

So we are back to competition. For a multitude of very valid reasons human activity gave rise to markets, and markets are supposed to stay efficient and mostly beneficial via competition. And yet, under its remit, on its watch, we have developed built-in and perceived obsolescence, an after-care industry only necessary in its current size because of poor quality construction, highly effective and pervasive advertising to pump repeated consumption of nonsense goods, the idea that shopping is therapy, perpetual GDP growth as a necessity, and other anomalies, all of which cause distortions harmful to the environment in which we operate, and on which we depend for our very existence. Is competition, as we have mythologized it, delivering what it is theorized to? Can a market be other than Hobbesian in its conception? Can it be other than Orwellian in its long term outcome? How do we combine cooperation and competition wisely within economic theory? As I have said elsewhere, economics – as other disciplines – should not allow the walls erected between it and others to stand any longer. Answering these, and other very important questions, obliges us to tear these walls down. Why shouldn’t the fruits, say, of zoology and geophysics, where relevant, influence economics, change it, improve it?

Competition is both real and necessary, but poorly understood. The model I like most is open source software, in which the original meaning of competition, as defined above, seems to find its most healthy expression. That Bill Gates referred to it as Communism is telling, don’t you think? That its product is both “free” and of high quality tells its own story. Economic theory should be paying very close attention.


Thai said...

Cooperation is a form of competition We cooperate in order to compete. They are different sides of the same coin.

Thai said...

The biggest mistake we all make is concerning the idea re: who/what we need to compete against.

Toby said...

That's my thinking too, but also that we have a poor understanding still of both concepts. I'm not even sure they're two sides of the same coin, because that implies opposites. I'm beginning to think they're not in opposition but dynamically interlinked processes of energy exchange, we have mistakenly split (we love to split things in to opposites) into two distinct behaviours. You say we cooperate to compete, don't we also compete to cooperate, like in open source software for example?
Thanks for commenting...

Thai said...

Sorry, I did not mean to imply they were opposites at all with the coin analogy.

Perhaps a better visual is a mirror? They are both part of the same fractal.

Just like the tragedy of the commons is a multi-player version of the prisoner's dilemma and both are really restatements of the conservation of energy from still other viewpoints.


Thai said...

One last thought if you were unaware.

A conservation of energy in a closed system means a conservation of risk in that same closed system.

... And I realize nothing is truly a closed system.

Anyway, cooperation trades one benefit for one risk.

The benefit of economies of scale from cooperation is exactly off set from the increase risk that cooperation fails.

If you could do one thing on your own, and you knew you were going to completed it, yet you and I cooperating could do 6, then it makes sense to cooperate as splitting the gains is an increase of 2 from 1 to 3.

But IF cooperating with me means that you would lose everything and not get even the 1 if I (or you) failed to deliver, then the risk of the gain of an additional 2 comes at the loss of the guarantee of making 1.

Cooperation changes the nature of risk and offsets the benefit by increase the risk.

In the end it is still zero sum

Thai said...

By the way, I have been contemplating the implications of the following as it relates to cooperation of late.

My gut tells me cooperating teams are really just Bose-Einstein condensates, much as I suspect consciousness is too.

I obviously will not be able to prove this, but I keep searching to see if anyone else has as well.


Toby said...

Hi Thai,

thanks for your thoughts. I've been ignoring my blog for a while, concentrating on other things, so sorry for the late responses.

I'm not a physicist so can offer no educated opinion on Bose-Einstein condensates. What I will say is that you seem not to have addressed the scalability of cooperation. The risk decreases per participant as the number of participants increases. The "free-rider" problem, which is a tiny one in human societies in my opinion, is thereby minimized by larger numbers of cooperators. Also, if one party does not follow through on cooperation, there is a loss of trust, which means likely exclusion from future cooperative efforts. Among ants for example, if a hungry ants approaches a "colleague" who has excess food in and asks for some, should the ant with the surplus refuse, other ants treat the refuser worse even than an enemy. Social animals have all sorts of mechanisms for dealing with free-riders, beyond the simple math of risk.

But I agree that the competition-cooperation dichotomy is somewhat misleading. They are quite fused, are somehow part of each other. Cooperative competition and competitive cooperation do not seem like oxymorons to me...

Thai said...


re: "The risk decreases per participant as the number of participants increases."

This is a rabbit hole discussion but I would say "not really" or "it depends on what viewpoint you are looking at this from".

As one scales to larger and larger manifolds, energy is always conserved within these larger and larger manifolds.

Think about it

Further, to the extent increasing the numbers of people who cooperation mean one we are increasing the amount of specialization.

Specialization always increases the risk of total failure as specialists are highly dependent on other specialists.

So when things go bad, they are much worse than had two specialist never worked together cooperatively.

... How many times in your life have you said to yourself "forget it, I will do it myself, it is not worth the risk", etc...?

Risk is conserved so the free rider problem never goes away as you scale larger and larger as this just scales as well.

What do you think all these books like The Black Swan, etc... have been saying?

Toby said...

Good points.

"Further, to the extent increasing the numbers of people who cooperation mean one we are increasing the amount of specialization."

Doesn't this depend on the way in which we cooperate? Back in Buckminster Fuller's day the navy trained its top people to be comprehensivists and succeeded too. Their motivation was that admirals needed to be able to do a lot "alone" somewhere remote in the world, cut off by slow communications from HQ. We might have a different motivation to move away from excessive specialization today, but it's doable. You can have people cooperating and able to do each other's tasks, or you specialize a la division of labour. Both are forms of cooperation, in that a team is deployed to accomplish a common objective, only the methodology is different.

Bernhard Lietaer has done interesting work on redundancy in nature, so we'd be back again at whether nature is inherently competitive or cooperative, but I think specialization and generalization are not joined at the hip with competition and cooperation.

"As one scales to larger and larger manifolds, energy is always conserved within these larger and larger manifolds."

I can't think this one through, because I'm just a failed poet/philosopher type. In my untrained mind it seems to me that all systems seek to maintain cohesion (although "seek to" is somewhat anthropological), a part of which is conserving energy. However, there is leakage, as you mentioned earlier, and systems do work too. Energy exchange is always occurring. The question of whether risk of loss for systems capable of energy exchange increases at a 1:1 ratio as these systems cooperate with others, strikes me as highly unlikely. That would be ultimate fragility. The ecosystem is incredibly complex, full of countless subsystems which cooperate/compete to "be" the ecosystem. The ecosystem is hardly highly fragile. It has been going for billions of years, changing all the time, and coping with untold amounts of stress and shock.

Normally I say "it's not worth the effort." I tend not to think in terms of risk. ;-) I'm quite a reckless person, actually.

And I thought Black Swan events were about the unexpected, the impossibility of creating a predictive model that can predict everything. But I haven't looked into this yet. I've been told to though, just haven't got around to it yet.

Thai said...

Perhaps I might create a visual to improve communication?

Imagine a coin with heads on one side and tails on the other and you and I have a conversation about the coin. But we are both simultaneously far away from the coin AND we are looking at it coin from different viewpoints or vectors.

When we are both far away, the heads/tails detail is lost and therefore we both talk about "the coin" as an object at a point some distance from us. It therefore would appear to both of us that we are talking about the same thing to a first approximation.

But as we get closer to the coin, yet again, we each move towards the coin from opposite vectors, the heads/tails detail become clear.

When I talk about "the coin", I have a mental image that includes a heads on it. When you talk about the coin, you are including a mental image that has a tails in it. In other words, I am actually thinking about something which is slightly different than you.

Yet the odd thing is both viewpoints are 100% correct and yet different. We are both looking at the same thing- a coin- and yet both are simultaneously different because of this issue of aspect or viewpoint or vector or frame of reference, etc... at the same time.

So re: conservation of energy as a version of "systems seek cohesion"

Yes, and we are looking at systems differently.

I guess I should clarify I am being theoretical. And I do realize that theory is not the same as reality, particular as there is no such thing as a truly "closed" system.

But theoretical ideals are helpful for considering things, even as they are only approximations.

So when you say "systems seek to maintain cohesion... + leakage"

I completely agree with you AND the viewpoint I am try to convey is different.

If a system did not stay cohesive, it would cease to exist as a system and a new system would take over.

But assuming that the system is constant (again, this is just an assumption), the conservation of energy means that within this system/cohesion, whatever change which occurs in one part of a system must necessarily be felt in every other part of that system in order for "energy to be conserved".

My visual for this is a ball filled with colorful cloudy liquid liquid slowly swirling almost like liquid marble in the sphere. If you swirl the fluid in one area within the ball/sphere, and the sphere/ball's wall or boundary condition remains fixed, then all the rest of the fluid in the ball must swirl as well, even though we did not touch it.

I do agree with you that all systems must have new energy continually enter them as they loses energy (entropy, etc...) in order to continue to exist, or the system itself will get smaller and smaller like a water balloon slowly shrinking as water leaks out.

But within that system/ball/sphere/etc... any change that occurs in one part is felt everywhere else as energy is conserved.

Am I making sense?

Toby said...

"Yet the odd thing is both viewpoints are 100% correct and yet different."

This is not true, because neither of us have seen both sides. If we can debate the coin, we are in contact with each other, so, all things being equal, we are in this 3D universe and understand sides, so know we only have half the story. There are other bits of information we don't have either, like composition, weight, etc. So 100% correct cannot be true.

"whatever change which occurs in one part of a system must necessarily be felt in every other part of that system in order for "energy to be conserved"."

I always like to think in examples. So if I were to have cancer, I might not know it. My system might be sickening and yet the system would not experience this sickening in every other part. Same with a fire in a forest I guess, and many other systems too. The point is how information travels within the system, how the system handles information, what we mean by "felt," and the medium of the system which allows information, as distinct from the medium, to travel. It is a very complex set of variables.

Having said all that, I agree with your analogy that perspective is an important part of interpretation, probable the most important part. But then again we arrive at a set of complex variables that goes right down the multiple rabbit holes forever. That's how it seems to me anyway.

In the end, the experience of the competitive/cooperative processes at the systemic level is for our purposes perceived from a human perspective, analyzed through the filter of an imperfect language, and discussed among people with different perspectives. One thing is certain though, economics has a piss poor comprehension of both.