Friday, May 3, 2013

Nobody Knows Nothing Except Cooperation

My whole life is about understanding the world in which we live: the world of the utterly unappreciated  social miracles like the "price system" and the "credit system" that are not really systems at all, but universes of humans cooperating together.

So here comes Kevin Williamson from National Review writing about the same thing.  He reminds us of Leonard Reed's great discovery: "Nobody knows how to make a pencil."  There are a few people, somewhere in this world, that know how to do bits of it.  But for the rest of us, all we need to know is how to use a pencil.
That is the paradox of social knowledge: Of course we know how to make a pencil, even though none of us knows how to make a pencil, and pencils get made with very little drama and no central authority, corporate or political, overseeing their creation.
But if everyone can enjoy the use of a pencil or an iPhone, how come the Obama daughters go to a better school that the offspring of immigrants?
The reason for that is politics: not liberal politics, not conservative politics, not bad politics, but politics per se... The useful knowledge in any modern society is distributed rather than centralized... Markets work for the same reason that the Internet works: They are not organizations, but disorganizations... pockets of organization, their internal structures and relationships to one another in a constant state of flux. Market propositions are experimental propositions.
So when you have centralized systems -- of education, for example -- you get the Obama daughters getting a good education and the poor getting a lousy education.  Because that's how politics works, always and everywhere.

And then we come to the central truth, the one we do not want to confront.
 Conservatives like to say “Markets work,” as though that were an explanation of anything. What we really are saying is: “Failure works.” Corporations are mortal. Failure is not only an important part of the market process, it is the most important part of the market process.
Failure means that every corporation goes to die, because in the end it fails to adapt, fails to anticipate the market, fails to serve the consumer.  Want to find an immortal corporation?  Try politics and the US Postal Service, or Amtrak, or your local education monopoly.  They are not really immortal, but living in an half-dead zombie existence, not really producing wealth and prosperity but sucking the blood out of the living to continue a twilight existence.  Being already half-dead they do not grow or evolve.  They merely suck the life out of others.

We do not have a market system or a profit system or a price system or a credit system, for these human cooperations we insult with the notion of "system" are anything but.  They are organisms, joinings, adaptation, trust, good-will, and hard-learned lessons.

The hardest thing for everyone is to surrender to the challenge of constant change.  Everyone longs for a reprieve from change.  The disappointed liberal longs for the certainties of the 1950s when everyone had a lifetime job -- except they didn't.  The conservative longs for the halcyon days of the nuclear family -- except that it never was.  The academic longs to implement his intellectual system -- except that no system survives the first day of implementation.  But reality is much bigger than that.  It is a triumph of not of dominating system, or frantic competition, but cooperation.  Williamson again.
But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitless cooperativeness. Competition is one of the ways in which we learn how best to cooperate with one another and thereby deal with the problem of complexity — it is a means to the end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated. If you consider the relationship of the organism to its constituent organs, the relationship of the organ to its cells, or the relationship of the single cell to its organelles, it would not be an overstatement to say that the division of labor is the essence of life itself: Birds do it, bees do it, but human beings do it better. 
But Marx, as we recently complained, wrote that the division of labor was an inhuman and destructive alienation.  What is wrong with these people?

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