The Universal Notebook: Cooperate or perish

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Have you noticed the propensity of television producers to turn everything into a game these days?

Other than the occasional “Jeopardy,” I don’t watch any of the popular programs based on contests between people vying for everything from who can lose the most weight to who will become the next pop star, millionaire, wife, husband, or survivor. There are also “reality” shows in which people compete in real estate flipping, antiquing, and storage wars and to become top chef, the next fashion designer, and Donald Trump’s newest employee (talk about losers.) Contestants strive to win, but they just as often grovel, lie, and cheat to get what they want – just like in real life.

Here in the early years of the 21st century, however, this crass fascination with demeaning competition may mean we are witnessing the death throes of competition as a model for human progress. The collapse of both the financial market as a manufacturer of wealth and the two-party system as a governing structure are the two most obvious signs that business-as-usual no longer works.

We all grew up being taught that competition was healthy, that it was the American way, that it kept all players sharp, improved goods and services and lowered prices. Hard to believe we ever swallowed that whopper.

One does not have to have a Ph.D. in economics to see, for instance, that competition among health-care systems has not led to affordable health care, but to duplication, waste, and soaring health-care costs. Competition among colleges has not led to affordable higher education, but to one-upsmanship that has driven the cost of a private college education up to $60,000 a year. And competition among supermarket chains hasn’t resulted in lower food prices any more than competition among oil companies has led to lower gas prices.

The whole competition model is based on the underlying assumption that people always act in their own self-interest, that financial incentives and rewards are therefore required to get people to do the right thing. You and I know that’s baloney.

Yochai Benkler, a professor of entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard, posits in his 2011 book, “The Penguin and the Leviathan,” that “perhaps humankind might not be so inherently selfish after all. Through the work of hundreds of scientists, we have begun to see mounting evidence in psychology, organizational sociology, political science, experimental economics, and elsewhere that people are in fact more cooperative and selfless, or at least behave far less selfishly, than most economists and others assumed.”

Benkler maintains that only 30 percent of people behave selfishly. No need to explain who they are; Maine has one as governor. The good news is that “fully half of all people systematically, significantly, and predictably behave cooperatively.”

If the 21st century is not be the last century in human history, cooperation must replace competition as our local, national and global modus operandi. (Spare me the Agenda:21 nonsense. We don’t have time for you to catch up.)

Benkler cites developments such as Linux, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, and the World Wide Web itself as examples of the rise of cooperative human ventures, and the success of team-based companies such as Southwest Airlines and Toyota as examples of how flattening the command structure improves performance. Hierarchical organizations are going the way of the dinosaurs. And the continuing attempt by 30-percenters to privatize and monetize all aspects of human endeavor is a dead-end game.

Competition is still a useful model for sporting events, game shows and other such diversions and amusements – fun, but meaningless. Finance, health care, education, energy, agriculture, indeed the entire global economy, are far too important, however, to be left to competitive gamesmanship.

The future, if there is to be one, lies in cooperation – in such enterprises as open-source information systems, crowd-funding, community-supported agriculture, file-sharing, universal single-payer health care, sustainable fuels, voluntary environmental protections and ranked-choice voting to achieve consensus about leadership.

Ultimately, the common good will trump self-interest. Opting for that which benefits the most in the long-term – things at the moment like marriage equality, zero-carbon footprints, gun control, campaign finance reform, regulation of financial markets – is simply enlightened self-interest.

Any system that guarantees winners and losers guarantees that we will all lose in the end. If we don’t cooperate, we don’t survive. It’s that simple.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.