The Inevitability of Cooperation

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve been thinking lately about why we cooperate with each other–why we form communities and states. The typical Hobbesian answer to this question is that we cooperate in order to protect ourselves from violence. There is truth in that answer, but security concerns, while a primary motivator for cooperation, are not the only motivator. This is important, because there are those who oppose cooperative institutions on the grounds that a world without cooperative institutions isn’t as dangerous as Hobbesians commonly believe, suggesting we should become total individualists (e.g. anarchists, transcendentalists, etc.).

While I agree with the Hobbesians that a world without cooperative institutions is one in which people’s lives are nasty, brutish, and short, I think it is quite possible to provide an explanation for coming into being of cooperative institutions even under the assumption that the Hobbesians are wrong. It is even possible to go further, to argue that even in a world in which life in the state of nature is not violent, the creation of states remains nonetheless inevitable and unavoidable.

To see how this is so, we can reason from the perspective of an individual living in nature with full knowledge that there are other individuals with whom he could cooperate. Here we grant individualists their core premise–our natural man does not have to fear violence from his fellow men. In this hypothetical scenario, all men are pacifists. We will also ignore the most primitive of cooperative institutions–the family–and assume that all sexual couplings are temporary and all children leave their mothers forever at 10, so as to minimize reproductive cooperation.

What is the goal of our natural man? Broadly speaking, he desires to be as happy as possible for as long as possible. He wants a long life, and he wants that life to be good. He wants his desires to be satisfied, he wants to experience pleasure and avoid pain, and so on.

What is the principal challenge to natural man’s goal? First and foremost his health–natural man has to gather and/or hunt his own food, consuming much of his time. He also lacks medical knowledge, vaccinations, the capacity to deal with various diseases and ailments. In other words, even if natural man’s life is not violent, it is still likely to be very short. The historical life expectancy of early man was sub-30, with those lucky enough to make it to 15 likely to live to around 50, so common was it for individuals to die as infants or small children. In addition, we know that man is a social creature, that without companionship, man’s mental condition suffers. The chronically socially isolated are often driven to madness. This gives our natural man three problems, none of which he can achieve on his own:

  1. The Hunter/Gatherer Problem–natural man has no time to pursue other interests or inclinations due to the constant need to pursue additional food.
  2. The Short Life Problem–natural man has no means of protecting himself from disease, and as he ages he will find it more difficult to acquire food. Even insofar as his life is good, it is good for too short a length of time.
  3. The Social Problem–natural man has an inherent will to companionship. He cannot be happy without friends and/or romantic companions.

It requires the lifespans of many people working together for human beings to discover vaccines, agriculture, antibiotics, and the various other solutions to problems 1 and 2. Problem 3 is especially critical, as it poses the most immediate direct threat to our natural man’s quality of life. Our natural man has a choice–he can chase deer, go mad, get tuberculosis, and die, or he can attempt to pursue some kind of cooperative social arrangement with the other people. The rational choice is clearly the latter; indeed it is almost unthinkable to imagine an individual choosing the former.

Cooperating unlocks four primary means by which natural man improves his life:

  1. Health–man is able to increase his lifespan, improve his diet, and satisfy his social urges.
  2. Knowledge–man is able to acquire understanding of the world around him, allowing him to further improve his health and to more efficiently pursue and achieve his desires.
  3. Division of Labor–man no longer has to be exclusively a food-gatherer. He can outsource food-gathering to others and instead explore other interests and desires (e.g. metalworking).
  4. Safety–we have excluded this from our discussion in order to draw attention to the importance of the other advantages.

This shows, at the very least, why rugged individualism is superseded by the village commune. But why do we scale up our villages? Why do we form larger cooperative groups that contain a great many of these smaller units?

The primary reason is that all of the advantages outlined above only get bigger with scale. The more workers we have, the more knowledge we can acquire, the more people non-food gathering people we can support, and so on. It is impossible to enjoy the full force of cooperative advantage at the village commune level. The same forces that make it reasonable to form a village commune make it reasonable to form larger collective entities.

At this point, we run up against a fascinating human problem, Dunbar’s number. There is a maximum number of people that human beings can properly get to know and identify personally with, and this number is not especially large. The usual estimate is 150. Beyond that point, human beings lack the mental capacity to process additional people. It is rather spectacular how lacking in empathy we are often disposed to be toward people we do not know personally. The internet is awash with dark humor, and I myself am a frequent imbiber.

Once we break Dunbar’s number, we’re no longer able to rely on personal relationships to form the basis for our cooperation. At that point, we need big, strong institutions to which we all feel connected, even if we don’t know one another personally–we need the state. The state not only provides a locus of identity, it assists us with the problem of communication. How do we coordinate our cooperative behavior to maximize everyone’s gains in a large-scale community? We need to agree on how to allocate resources, how to distribute jobs, and so on. Some individualists will point to the market system as the answer to these conundrums, but fundamentally, the market system is the product of the state system. Markets are created, sustained, and regulated by states. The state also has to provide citizens with the skills and background necessary to participate in markets effectively–it has to educate people, and it has to ensure that people get educated even when those people lack the resources to provide for that education themselves. It has to educate people even when it’s not profitable to do so. Citizens can’t rely on charities in no small part because of Dunbar’s number–their fellow citizens are biologically hard-wired to be personally indifferent to their suffering.

This is not to say that cooperation doesn’t carry with it costs–in any large society, some people are going to feel that they are at a relative disadvantage to many other people. Society carries with it inequalities, both genetic and sociological. Individuals also have to act in a sociable manner–they have to play nice with others. This restricts, to some degree, our liberties. But these inequalities and limits on behavior ultimately exist in order to allow us to do more, to be more, not less, free. If I am upset because I would like to spend my money on a car but instead have to pay it in taxes, I should realize that my tax money educates people so that in future, I might buy something cooler. The generation of people that created computers, the internet, and so on all benefited from a public commitment of resources to that purpose, a commitment that simply would not be matched under a system dependent on charity or profitability. It is because some people did not buy Cadillacs in the 50’s and 60’s and instead gave their money to the state that I am able to type these words on this computer right now. I have no doubt that most of these individuals would not have given up that money voluntarily in the absence of a state.