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Co-operation and Competition

Ed Mayo, ex-head of the New Economics Foundation and now of Co-ops UK, has an interesting blog (read here) on the importance of co-operation in our economic system rather than competition. This is a really challenging and difficult topic.

Co-operation is extremely important to the successful functioning of the market-oriented economies of the West. But this is not because of co-operation as an organisational structure. The dominant form of corporate structure for over 100 years has been the shareholder-based joint stock company, and not organisations based on co-operative lines. But nevertheless, co-operation between firms is essential.

The most important reason for this is very simple. Complex economic systems contain many linkages between the different component parts. In an evolutionary context, we can think of a competitive relationship between two firms being expressed by a negative connection between them. If one does well, the other is likely to lose out, and its fitness is reduced. In contrast, a co=-operative relationship is positive. If one does well, the fitness of the other is increased, and vice versa.

Economic theory focuses exclusively on the competitive links. But these are dominated by the co-oerative ones. The structure of production is the reason why. Most economic activity does not involve the final consumer, the individual. It is business to business. So if a firm learns to produce something more efficiently, or if it innovates successfully, the companies to which it supplies benefit.

More generally, co-operation is needed to agree institutional structures in which economic activity can take place. And it is the basis of most contractual agreements. It is impossible to specify in complete detail most business-to-business contractual relationships – look at the massive difficulties caused by Brownite thinking on this in terms of the relationships between regulators and the regulated in the relevant sectors of the UK economy. A strong element of trust is required.

But all this co-operation, which pervades successful capitalist economies, has nothing to do with the organisational form of companies. It can, and indeed has, shown itself in a system dominated not by co-operative but by joint stock firms.

I have been interested in this for some time, and here is a very technical paper which examines what happens in an evolutionary system when most of the linkages are competitive and not co-operative.

Paul Ormerod, Managing Partner Volterra

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