Market competition is how we choose whom to cooperate with

Eamonn has alerted me to another one of those books on how cooperation is better than competition. We can all guess how it goes:

But it doesn’t have to be this way. CEOs, scientists, engineers, investors, and inventors around the world are pioneering better ways to create great products, build enduring businesses, and grow relationships. Their secret? Generosity. Trust. Time. Theater. From the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts to the classrooms of Singapore and Finland, from tiny start-ups to global engineering firms and beloved American organizations—like Ocean Spray, Eileen Fisher, Gore, and Boston Scientific—Heffernan discovers ways of living and working that foster creativity, spark innovation, reinforce our social fabric, and feel so much better than winning.

Yep, standard yadda yadda going on there. We'll all do better with a bit of fluffy group hugs rather than dealing in that awful market competition yucky stuff.

What always gets missed here is that we human beings are a both competitive and cooperative species. And if truth be told, we compete in order to be able to cooperate.

Take a base example, one that is understood by anyone who has ever gone out on the pull. The aim is to find someone to cooperate with: in fact, someone to cooperate the heck out of sometime later in the evening. Yet we all know that we're in competition with everyone else who is aiming to achive the same state of blissful cooperation. We're competing both with the others aiming at the same targets as ourselves and also with the desires of those we wish to cooperate with. And as everyone who has ever successfully pulled knows compromises need to be made, demonstrations of fitness for task performed and in general a not all that genteel pavane of ruthless competition takes place as we sort through those who we would like to cooperate with, those who will consent to cooperating with us and weighing up the best deal we can manage in terms of age, size, energy and cuteness. And of course the men are doing the same to the ladies as well.

Outside the world of cheap nightclubs we're all doing much the same thing. If looking for a long term mate we might change our selection criteria (the likelihood of somone saying yes on the first date might decline in importance) but we are all competing with everyone else of the same sexual orientation for those we desire, as they are with their cohort. Similarly, steel companies are competing with each other to sell to car factories, of course they are. But there's a good reason why it's very difficult indeed to dislodge an incumbent supplier: because the buyer has gone through that competition pahse and is now engaged in cooperation.

And that's actually how much of the economy does operate. Almost nobody is constantly on the look out for a new supplier. Most of us are, most of the time, cooperating with those we have already chosen through the competitive part of the process. And you can't really get the system to work in any other manner. We don't want to give up the competition part, that's how you end up living with the girl you went to primary school with, how the E Germans ended up driving Trabants. And we don't want to continually have the competition either for that would mean putting out to tender the purchase of every office pencil or a marriage record like Liz Taylor. We do need both however: it's just that finding the correct balance can be a little difficult as any middle aged man who visits a cheap nightclub can attest.