Markets: cooperation or competition?

A question from a reader:

Look, here’s the challenge for Christians, *if* they can see it: those men in suits, in offices, they’re out for themselves, selfish, no thought for the common good. But mankind’s progress has been migration, conquest even, leading to trade in goods and ideas and methods. Self interest has worked for mankind’s benefit, the greed of those men in suits has worked for mankind. At the very least man has been served better by his restlessness than by any higher motives. How do Christians respond to this – to us – paradox.

Within Catholicism at least, the only brand of Christianity that I know much about, it is the motive for an action which is important. A married couple having a legover as a result of their mutual love for each other is just fine: admirable even, a use of one of God’s gifts to us (dependent upon the level of contraception being used or not of course, nothing is ever simple in Catholicism). A man demanding a jump from his wife because he is blinded with lust is not admirable. Indeed, many would say it is sinful. The action might be the same but the reason matters.

As to a market economy, where we’re all assumed to be motivated by our (enlightened) self interest yes, if we think of this as purely being driven by greed then we do have a problem. Greed is indeed a sin and thus, again within Catholicism, we cannot accept that good things can come from bad. So while the results of a market economy, driven by that greed, seem to be better than any other system we’ve tried, that original motive makes the result unacceptable.

Many people, rather cleverer than I am, have grappled with this problem for some number of years longer than I have done so. But here’s at least my attempt at the beginning of an explanation.

Which is that markets, certainly the business world that I’ve been involved with, are not all that much about competition. It’s there, certainly, but that’s not what is really going on. The competition is to try and find the people that you can cooperate with. Say my process needs widgets: I’m not competing with those who make widgets in the slightest. But those who make widgets are competing with each other to find who is going to be the one who cooperates with me in providing my widgets.

We are not competing therefore: we, I and the widget makers, are trying to work out on the basis of price, reliability, quality and all that, who should be the people that we cooperate with.

To return to our sex analogy, we are in a dating market before we make our choice. True, that choice is not until death us do part but believe me, there’s still a commitment being made. Anyone in business will tell you how difficult it is to depose an incumbent supplier.

As above there’s a great deal more thought gone into this question than I can offer. But I would at least begin to argue that the way out of this paradox is to understand that markets are a selection mechanism as to who to cooperate with rather than vicious and impersonal competition driven by greed. Just as the dating market works: we’re looking for the best we can get and no one at all thinks that this is odd behaviour in that context.

36 thoughts on “Markets: cooperation or competition?”

  1. And I would answer far more simply. Jesus said “Love your neighbour AS YOURSELF”. There’s nothing wrong with self-interest per se. Greed simply needs to be tempered with philanthropy.

  2. Well, I like this answer because it does begin truly to describe the world as I have experienced it. I think I can say that I have cooperated far more than I have ever competed, I just haven’t recognised it!

    But I have experienced the two opposing philosophies in the way others have done business with me. Here ‘business’ is in my employment/organisation and in low-level local property dealings. There are those who have taken every opportunity to ‘put one over on me’ in little ways. Their view has been, “if it’s in my immediate self interest I will help you, but if it isn’t my immediate problem i’m not interested”. They are then surprised when the tables turn, when I ahve the leverage, when they might need a favour from me and they find I couldn’t care less. I won’t do busienss with these people again.

    Then there is a second kind of partner, for example a local builder who has rented property to the same people for 40 years or more (his father started the business). I always go back to him. There is quite a bit of work at the moment that is too much for his operation, so that work goes to the people he recommends. We have a ‘relationship’, it will endure.

    This is indeed enlightened self interest; it works.

  3. Frances

    The probem is we are also commanded to love our enemies. “As yourself” could be interpreted (wrongly, I know) as “and if he’s a bastard to you, give it him back”.

    The real challenge – to me – is developing a living, working philosophy for dealing with people you know you can’t trust.

  4. The problem you religious types have with greed is your supposed god has created a world where it’s the prime purpose of every species on it to be the one & only species occupying all evolutionary niches. The ultimate in greed.
    So a bit difficult to start using that god to diss greed?

  5. Most of the horrors of Progressivism result from this belief in the primacy of motives. Never mind the consequences – just feel the smug self-righteousness.

  6. your supposed god has created a world where it’s the prime purpose of every species on it to be the one & only species occupying all evolutionary niches

    Sorry, which religion (or perversion thereof) are you stomping on here? The purpose of every species is to occupy all evolutionary niches? Just one species omni-present?

  7. Bloke in Spain

    SE really has hit the nail on the head here; I’m afraid you are actually discussing YOUR supposed god, who you have created for yourself.

  8. @Rob – good point.

    As a fellow lapsed Catholic, I find the only way around this conundrum is to separate the illogic of religion and the logic of life.

    I know, logically, that by striving to have more for myself I am, in some infinitesimal way, and as part of a wider group of people all doing the same thing, improving life for others.

    Newcomen, Watt – did they invent and improve the steam engine to make money, to make life easier, or because they enjoyed tinkering?

    I suspect all three, but their motives are irrelevant – the upshot was you no longer had to haul buckets of water out of flooded mines by hand/pony etc etc.

  9. @SE & Ironman
    No, sorry, that really is how it works. Best seen in the plant realm. Plants will try & outcompete their neighbor for light. Even emit toxins prevent other plants growing in their vicinity. Algal blooms will eradicate all life except themselves. it is the ultimate greed. To utilise all resources.
    As Christianity’s god lays claim to have created all this, then Christianity’s god must have intended it.

  10. Rob: nail on head! Selfless motives are no use if the law of unintended consequence results in a cockup. The merely selfish tend to notice things going awry faster than the selfless who generally want to throw more resources at a problem to achieve results. Somewhere in my impossibly remote schooling I was taught ” By their fruits shall you know them!”

  11. As Christianity’s god lays claim to have created all this, then Christianity’s god must have intended it.

    Yet monocultures are an artefact of modern farming not of natural environments. So, although plants are ‘trying’ (assuming that you accept the anthropomorphisation. I’m reluctant to), they’re not succeeding.

    And, of course, the perversion you are castigating (quite rightly) is biblical literalism. Which leads, if unrestrained, to Young Earth Creationism and other such heffalump traps for the gullible.

  12. Jesus told his followers to sell everything they had and give it to the poor.

    I’m still waiting for a notable number of them to comply with this instruction. When it happens, I’ll start listening.

  13. I still can’t see what’s wrong with greed.

    What’s wrong with wanting more and better for yourself and those you care about?

    Is the Church not greedy when it comes to saving souls? Look at St Peter’s in Rome or St Paul’s in London – was there not a species of greed involved in making such extravagent temples? And yet, they are magnificent.

  14. So, although plants are ‘trying’ (assuming that you accept the anthropomorphisation. I’m reluctant to)
    It’s not an anthropomorphisation. It’s what plants, all organisms do. Compete.
    The only way the Christian view of a created world will hold together is with a god actively fine tuning to preserve diversity. Which begs the question; why doesn’t said god not do this with homo sap?
    And there’s no hint of “biblical literalism. Which leads, if unrestrained, to Young Earth Creationism” in this argument whatsoever.
    Either greed is universally good or it isn’t.

  15. And aren’t people accused of being greedy usually just successful, hard working, or lucky folks whose material wealth makes them targets for the jealousy of others?

    Which is the sin here: wanting to improve your lot and going out to achieve that through peaceful cooperation, or seething with envy at the success of others and demanding the State strip them of their property?

  16. I’m a bit surprised to see a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute argue that motives are more important than results.
    (The baker, butcher…)
    Smith was a Christian of standard stripe – had to be for his post in moral philosophy.
    Jesus Christ would have endorsed Rob’s comment. No doubt there is a more exact parable than the good samaritan if I could remember it.

  17. My father found that the best group to do business with were (British) Jews. My Irish Roman Catholic grandfather found his fellow IRCs to be dishonest. Infer what you like.

  18. Timmy, just asking.

    How in fuck do you get a hard-on without feeling lust? Is it just for the incense swingers or can anyone learn the trick?

  19. dearieme
    One of the best places to seek the advantages of the black economy – illegal drugs, knocked-off goods, work being done off-the-books – is to hang around the bar at the Labour Club.
    Infer what you like.

  20. Christians like a good moral challenge, and like a crossword, if it’s too easy it’s not personally satisfying enough. Now there’s a paradox!

  21. Dearieme – maybe I’ve been lucky, but the vast majority of people of whatever nationality or ethnic background I’ve done business with have been straightforward and honest. I’ve never asked my clients what religion they are cos I don’t care but they’re spread across EMEA and based on conversations over the years some of them are pretty obviously practicing Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.

    The only blatantly dishonest people I’ve encountered (and that’s less than a handful out of many hundreds of people over the past decade) were white and British – specifically, Scottish. No idea what religion if any they held to.

  22. ‘How in fuck do you get a hard-on without feeling lust? Is it just for the incense swingers or can anyone learn the trick?’

    Still happens to me every morning. But I think what Tim means is, if you’re up for it but your wife isn’t, you don’t plough on regardless.

  23. Bloke in France: “Jesus Christ would have endorsed Rob’s comment”

    Our favourite blogger once gave a lecture to students in York entitled “Jesus would close the tax gap”. I rather ridiculed him for that!

  24. Ironman – Clearly, Jesus would want us to vote for Ed Miliband.

    The Son of God would also favour people who drive hybrids.

  25. Frances

    I’ve given your “As Yourself” (do as you would have done…?)some more thought. This time I hope I might understand you better. it also leads me to stray towards other subjects such as crime, punishment, retribution even.

    It proscibes crime, against each other and society; so far so obvious. If, however, I did sin against others or society then how would I expect to be treated? Well, i would expect sanction, even imprisonment, and I would complain because I would believe I had lost people’s trust or, in the extreme, had forfeited my right to freedom. I simply couldn’t expect society to ignore the crime and allow me my freedom. I would, however, expect to be entitled not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment, or excessive sentence.

    This helps me; I can examine crime, punishment etc from that persepctive and come to terms with the self-evident truth that whole-sentences etc are almost certainly necessary…and moral!

    In business, well if I entered an inferior tender for a contract I simply couldn’t expect to get the contract. If I cheated a partner or a client I simply wouldn’t expect them to trust me and to want to do business with me again.

    This is all enlightened self-interest; not greed. Greed is not good. Man has been elevated above the animals by a mixture of self-awareness, an awareness of the past and the future, our ability to communicate and to empathise. Process does matter; output is not all. If, however, a beneficial output cannot be offered, then it is not moral to invoke process as sovereign. This frankly is what lefty Christians do, it is what (soon-to-be) Cardinal Nichols has done.

  26. Dave – Ed Miliband is a Christ-like figure.

    He will feed the trade union multitudes using loaves and fishes paid for with more taxes and higher deficit spending.

    He has warned us that the floods are a result of us angering his heavenly father by not tithing enough to stop climate change.

    And if you watch him at PMQ’s, he looks like the Son of man at Golgotha, beatifically calm in the face of a baying mob and flanked by thieves.

  27. If you think about it, the parable of the loaves and five fishes is a harbinger for Green Quantiative Easing, courtesy of Ritchie and his colleagues on the Green New Deal group. The way money is created out of thin air, without creating any new debt and used so productively…

    The word of the Lord (High Tax Denouncer)

  28. Greed is good when it is filling the coffers of Holy Mother The Church and keeping her Prince Bishops in a style and manner that better allows them to do God’s work.

    Feeding the Church’s greed, is called self-denial, is virtuous and depending how much money, sorry self-denial, you put HMTC’s way depends how many years absolution you get and reduction of your sentence in ‘that part of Hell called Limbo’.

    Big self-denial earns a Papal Indulgence aka Get Out of Gaol Free Card…. well when I say ‘free’…

    It is true that the clergy of any religion are experts on greed.

  29. Surely the answer to this question is simply, “That was a tricky conundrum before Adam Smith, but now we can choose to be greedy and self-interested in the knowledge that our greed and self-interest is the most efficient way of bettering the world for others.”

  30. Surreptitious Evil,

    > Yet monocultures are an artefact of modern farming not of natural environments. So, although plants are ‘trying’ (assuming that you accept the anthropomorphisation. I’m reluctant to), they’re not succeeding.

    If you think that, your timeframe is wrong. Why do you think species become extinct? It’s not all dramatic flaming skies, you know; mainly, organisms outcompete each other into oblivion. The Balance Of Nature that Prince Charles likes to go on about is utter bollocks; there has never been any such thing; it just looks like there might be a balance if you only look at nature for a human lifespan (although, even then, not so much).

    If you don’t like the word “try” (and I see your point), substitute “strive”. I think, though, “try” has been adopted by evolutionary biologists as a shorthand for the processes whereby behaviour caused by an organism’s genes, if it makes their (the genes’, not the organism’s) survival more likely, will tend to exhibit. Arguably, they should have invented a new word, but “try” is usefully explanatory, even if it is misleading if you treat it too literally.

  31. “Man has been elevated above the animals by a mixture of self-awareness, an awareness of the past and the future, our ability to communicate and to empathise.”

    Bollocks.

    Just makes the con-game more rewarding.

  32. It’s the difference between justice and mercy. Markets implement perfect justice which doesn’t necessarily include mercy (although it may, if people choose). Socialists call for mercy at the expense of justice.

    It’s not really ‘greed’, that’s the socialist characterisation of it. Greed is when you seek more than is just. It’s not greedy to claim a lot if you worked long and hard for it, to provide what other people want or need. It’s only greedy when you take more than you need without paying the price for it. When in taking more you deny others the just fruits of their efforts.

  33. If you think that, your timeframe is wrong. Why do you think species become extinct? It’s not all dramatic flaming skies, you know; mainly, organisms outcompete each other into oblivion.

    Competition leading to extinction does not equal “one & only species occupying all evolutionary niches”. Extinction is usually due to being out-competed in your niche, or your niche changing (gradually or catastrophically) and the species not being able to compete in what is now available (or move to somewhere more salubrious.)

    My point was that if BiS’s “occupying all environmental niches” (which is even more stringent than ‘monoculture’) is God’s design for each species created (which assumes disbelief in evolution which is strongly linked with biblical literalism, which isn’t the theological pov of the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutherean, Methodist and most other non-USian sects of Christianity), then God isn’t doing a very good job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *