Market Cooperation

I somehow missed this last week, but Will Wilkinson wrote a great piece for the Cato Institute taking to task recent criticisms of Bush’s “ownership society” proposals.

Senator Barack Obama characterized letting people keep some more of their money as “Social Darwinism”, and Benjamin Barber argued that Bush “is trying to seduce us back into the state of nature, where the strong dominate the weak and anarchy ultimately dominates the strong and the weak, undermining security for both.”

Both of these men seem to think that community and cooperation consist entirely of government programs that coercively transfer funds from some people to others.

But, they forget (or don’t understand) that markets are highly cooperative, and genuine community exists largely outside of government programs. Here are some of Wilkinson’s words:

Seriously, Obama’s equation of the American ideals of ownership, independence, and autonomy with “Social Darwinism,” Barber’s charge that Social Security personal accounts are a ploy to reinstate Hobbesian chaos, these are signs of the sickness at the heart of contemporary liberalism: the inability or unwillingness to recognize the cooperative market order — our system of mutual benefit based on ownership and exchange — as the primary source of American prosperity, security, and solidarity.

WHAT IS OBAMA’S ALTERNATIVE to ownership? Taxing one citizen to pay another. Contemporary liberals have a bad habit of confusing social cohesion with the volume of government transfers, as if the coercive pattern of taking and giving was the measure of order and the test of our hearts. This is what leads Obama and Barber to so easily confuse ownership with anarchy, autonomy with chaos.

But here on Earth, where the United States is located, advanced market economies like ours function through immensely complex voluntary networks of interdependence and cooperation. To provide citizens with a bigger stake in the market through ownership is to integrate them more fully into a web of mutual support that is vastly more intricate and organic than the pattern of government transfers could ever be. People in societies like ours, who grow none of our own food, make none of our own clothes, and would not know how to build shelter if our lives depended on it, are truly “in this together.”

Modern market societies — ownership societies — are the paradigm of interdependent, mutually advantageous cooperation, and are as far as can be imagined from the society of atomistic predators Obama invokes to stir the disdain of the fresh-faced graduates of Knox. Market societies — ownership societies — are wealthy because they rely on and reinforce a high level of social trust and norms of cooperation.

Quite right.


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