The Two Ways Humans Work Together (And Which One Makes Us Happier)

The following excerpt comes from Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan’s new book, Cooperation & Coercion.

There are only two ways that humans work together: they cooperate with one another, or they coerce one another.

That’s it. Every nonsolitary endeavor humans have undertaken since the dawn of the species has employed cooperation, coercion, or some combination of these two organizing principles.

Cooperation is voluntary. In cooperation, people freely come together to form groups. They devise rules for how those in the group should behave. People are free to leave the group; people are free to ask to join the group; people within the group are free to accept new members or not, and to kick out members.

Cooperative groups enforce rules by mutually agreed association. If a person does not abide by the group’s rules, people within the group may choose not to associate with the person. The important point is that cooperation requires the consent of all parties.

A business, for example, is a cooperative group. A person joins a business as an employee only by the mutual consent of the person and the employer. The person cannot force the employer to hire him, and the employer cannot force the person to accept a job at the business. Both employee and employer agree to abide by certain rules, but either can free himself from those rules at any time—the employee by quitting, the employer by firing the employee.

Similarly, churches, civic organizations, social clubs, and even Friday night poker games are cooperative groups.

Coercion is involuntary. It occurs when a person (or a group of people) restricts the autonomy of another person, typically through violence or the threat of violence. Because coercive groups ultimately enforce rules by physical might, they do not require the consent of their members.

Coercion is not always bad. Yes, murdering, stealing, and polluting all involve coercion—but so does preventing people from murdering, stealing, and polluting. When humans want to apply coercion in a good way, government is the tool they use.

A government is a coercive organization. A person born into a society is automatically subject to the rules that the society’s government imposes. Sometimes the person can leave, but only by physically moving his household and, even then, only with the permission of both the government whose territory he is leaving and the government whose territory he proposes to enter.

Clearly, dictatorships are coercive. But so, too, are democracies. What separates a dictatorship and a democracy is the number of people required to decide whether and how to coerce. In a democracy, 50 percent of the voters plus one can impose their wills on the remainder of the population. If only 50 percent of the population votes, as is typical in the United States, then “50 percent of the voters” is actually 25 percent of the population imposing its will on everyone else. We all abide by rules, including plenty that we don’t agree with, in the name of getting along.

Which Makes People Happier: Cooperation or Coercion?

Three of the greatest philosophical minds humanity has ever produced, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, disagreed significantly on many things, but each believed that people’s ultimate goal was to become happy and that everything everyone does is ultimately in service to this. Though they had radically different ideas about how to attain happiness, they agreed that the
goal is happiness. As Aristotle says, man is a social animal, so human beings have to live with one another in peace to be fully human, to be happy.

The important question is how best to do that: through cooperation or coercion?

The benefit of cooperation is that people may choose whether to participate. This makes cooperative behavior self-correcting, because people will tend to want to cooperate in ventures that increase their happiness and to avoid ventures that do not.

Businesses with quality products, low prices, and friendly service will tend to attract customers. Churches whose congregations are unwelcoming or judgmental will tend to lose members. Neighborhoods that are well kept and friendly will tend to attract residents.

The benefit of coercion is that people may not decline to participate. We do not want people deciding for themselves whether to murder, steal, or defraud. Being peaceful, respecting people’s property, and behaving honestly are behaviors we want to be universal.

Coercion can yield uniform behavior. When abused, it can, and almost always does yield all kinds of other behaviors too. Uniform behavior is desirable only if the people subject to the coercion agree on what things will yield happiness and if the coercers know best how to attain those things. Here is where things get tricky.

Take the example of murder again. Almost everyone agrees that less murder yields more happiness, and an effective way to attain less murder is for would-be murderers to know that they will be caught and severely punished. Hence, preventing murder via incarceration is a good application for coercion. But what about banning firearms? Is that an effective way to achieve lower murder rates? Is such a ban a good application for coercion? On these issues there is significant disagreement.

Thomas Paine on the Purpose of Government

Apart from a handful of obvious examples, almost all of which involve one person inflicting harm on another, it’s pretty hard to reach agreement on what objectives yield happiness.

More city parking might make drivers happy, but bikers or pedestrians will not be thrilled with increased automobile traffic. Steel tariffs are great for domestic steelworkers but not for domestic autoworkers, whose employers must pay more for steel, or for domestic car buyers, who must pay more for cars.

Things get even trickier when we remember that human beings are at once individuals worthy of respect and members of a shared society that can and does make significant demands on them.

Here the difference between government and society is laid bare. Government is a coercive tool society employs to achieve certain ends. Society, on the other hand, is the aggregation of people themselves, and is generally cooperative. When people consider government and society to be the same, they end up understanding neither.

Perhaps no one got to the heart of the difference, especially in the United States, better than Thomas Paine in 1776:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

Society, according to Paine, is always a blessing. Government is difficult because it carries enough power to make us miserable, which it sometimes does.

Nonetheless, government is necessary. On this point nearly every great thinker agrees, but no one put it more clearly than Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. There, like Paine, he asserted that government exists to effect the safety and happiness of the people, which it does by securing their rights.

This is the quintessential duty of government. And “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,” Jefferson held, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

For Jefferson, having no government was not an option. He might have stopped short of Paine’s assertion that government was a “necessary evil,” but he stopped just short of it.

The operative question, always, is when should we coerce our fellow citizens and when should we step back and allow them to cooperate.

There is no hard and fast rule that will answer this question in every instance, but as we will see, patterns of human behavior do, in fact, emerge. Those patterns clearly indicate that when government limits its force to preventing people from harming one another, people have the maximum ability to cooperate. And although coercion is sometimes necessary, ultimately cooperation is the key to human progress.

The more we encourage cooperation, the better off we all will be.

About the Authors

Antony Davies is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan is managing director of the Freedom Center at the University of Arizona and the F. A. Hayek Distinguished Fellow at FEE. This article is adapted from their new book, Cooperation & Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What That Means for Economics and Politics.

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