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Cooperation, not Violence
Replacing the cycles of history with something better.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 23, 2002

Cooperation, not Violence_James Leroy Wilson-Replacing the cycles of history with something better. Faithful readers of my column may detect an evolution of sorts in my thoughts. Last summer, I dedicated two columns to the subject of taxation, advocating ridding ourselves of the present system and replacing it with a sales tax. It was largely an argument based on making taxes as much a non-factor on the economy as could be possible, thereby encouraging free enterprise, less government, and, more significantly, less need for government. Last week, I advocated the same cause of abolishing the income tax, but with a different, moral argument. The income tax, I argued, was the state's claim on your life; if the fruits of your labor belongs to the state, which allows you to keep only what the government decides it doesn't need, then you are functionally a slave of the government.

Last week's column was a direct result of my re-formulation of government as nothing more than a monopoly of violence, which was an epiphany from two months ago: it is neither arms nor economic freedom that causes wars, but rather collectivism and nationalism.

But the "economic freedom" argument might not go far with some people. And there is one reason: many people think that for some people to prosper, others become poorer. All of economic life is a zero-sum game: some win, others lose. Their political theory is that the rich use government to protect their wealth, and that the poor should therefore use government to take that wealth "back" to their more deserving hands.

There are plenty of historical reasons to play this game. It's a game that I just can't play, however, for three reasons.

First, and least convincing for the secular culture, is my belief that love is a "real" thing, existing independently of individual human thought, feeling or will, and that this reality called love is God. Self-evidently, God loves us and wants what's best for us. Which means what's best for me, and what's best for you, and what's best for everyone else. Obviously, the contents of what's "best" in life is particular to the person; basic physical differences among people are evidence that the specifics for what's best for each is not best for all. But if love is God, God is love, and God is real, then, obviously, what's best for any particular person can not and does not come at the expense of somebody else. Therefore, the rich do not have to deny what's best for the poor to protect their wealth, and the poor do not have to deny what's best for the rich to gain whatever is best for them.

Second, is the lessons of Robert Axelrod's book The Evolution of Cooperation, other studies in game theory, and other affirmations of benevolent common sense. "Prisoner's Dilemma" games have multiple players and multiple encounters with each player. The price of cooperating with a betrayer is steep; the reward for betraying a cooperator is high. To get the most points in an encounter, one must betray another player who's trying to be cooperative. To get the second-most points is to be mutually cooperative, while getting the second-worst points is to mutually betray. But time after time, again and again, it has been established that the "Tit for Tat" strategy, cooperating at first with everyone, while betraying at second encounters only those that betrayed you the first time, proved to be the ultimate points-getter. And the "Tit for Tat" strategists actually protected even more cooperative and forgiving players who yielded even more points.

The effect of such games is to establish in our economic thinking that mutual cooperation, not exploitation, is the engine for maximizing benefits for all. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of prosperity, in which people seeking mutually advantageous, cooperative exchanges, has pretty much been verified in game theory.

The third reason has to do with the nature of violence, of power, itself. It doesn't require the condemnation of God, or the allure of points in game theory, to know that power corrupts; violence corrupts. Violence thrives on the assumption that other people can't be trusted, not even to look after their own best interests. The entire reason there is violence on the earth is because we have deceived ourselves into thinking that somebody else's gain comes only at our expense, or that the only way we can gain is at somebody else's expense.

I will grant that that assumption is historically justified, but only because it is a story that keeps repeating itself. The leftists will keep on thinking that they need the state to elevate the poor because they only know of right-wingers using the state to oppress the poor. But if the state was limited only to using violence of legal, authorized force to check, deter, and eliminate the violence of attacks and fraud, then it is evident to me that the welfare the people is elevated, because cooperative mutual exchanges increase wealth for both parties.

In theology and in theory, I am convinced that the world is so ordered to provide benefits for all, not exclusive rewards for some and misery for others. And the only lesson from history that I can gather is that those who sought liberty and peace got both more than those who sought power and its violent institutions. We have to do better than playing the tired old violent games of history. Government can be an agent for liberty, not violence and oppression, if only we let it.

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