Capitalism Fosters Human Cooperation Like Nothing Else

There is an apocryphal story about a man who sees his neighbor searching under a streetlight. Being a good neighbor, he offers to help. The man who is searching explains he lost his car keys. The two men look, but the keys are nowhere to be found. “Are you sure you dropped your keys under the streetlight?” asks the concerned neighbor. “I’m not sure,” responds the man who lost his keys, “but this is where the light is.”

If you have ever looked for any missing item in the same place repeatedly, you know there is a natural tendency to turn to what is familiar for solutions. Availability bias may cause us to give “undue attention and importance to information that is immediately available at hand” while ignoring “wider evidence that clearly exists but is not as easily remembered or accessed.”

Day after day, the media promotes a narrative that politicians are the source of goodness in our lives. Don’t blame a biased media. Many watching CNNFox News, and MSNBC sit in rapt attention. Some spend hours a day gravitating toward the light the media shines on politicians, with endless coverage of who is running, who may run, who should run. Do those watching believe their “keys” to a good life are found where politicians scrimmage?

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If you live in an ideological bubble, it might surprise you to learn how many well-meaning individuals think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is brilliant and support the democratic socialist platform. They believe that brilliant individuals have the knowledge to solve the societal problems they perceive, and only the mendacity of non-caring people is blocking the deployment of solutions. This idea about knowledge is mistaken. They do not understand that useful knowledge is not a stock to be deployed; instead, knowledge must be discovered in a process.

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Why can’t we cooperate more and solve these problems? they wonder. We have to do something, they say.

They are so focused on looking toward government solutions, they do not notice the discovery process underway every day. As Jonah Goldberg puts it in his book Suicide of the West, “Capitalism is the most cooperative system ever created for the peaceful improvement of peoples’ lives.” Goldberg continues, “The market system is so good at getting people—from all over the world—to work together that we barely notice how much we’re cooperating.”

Recently, my wife and I spent a weekend in Boston. On the drive home, we stopped to shop at different exits off the highway: first at Wegmans, next Costco, then Trader Joe’s, then Market Basket, then Whole Foods, and finally a local co-op.

Each market had a jammed parking lot and a vibrant, thriving atmosphere. No politicians or planners issued commands about what products these stores should stock. By the time we returned home our car was full of our bounty. Those seeking to serve us produced at our fingertips a cornucopia that not even a king or Rockefeller could have imagined a mere century ago.

Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren may rail against corporations. But what power did these stores have over us? Supermarket chains that don’t serve us well, we pass by. The consumer is the real boss, not “capitalists, the enterprisers, [or] farmers,” as Ludwig von Mises explains in his book Bureaucracy.

“[Consumers] by their buying and by their abstention from buying; decide who should own the capital and run the plants. They determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality. Their attitudes result either in profit or in loss for the enterpriser. They make poor men rich and rich men poor. They are no easy bosses. They are full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. They do not care a whit for past merit.”

“As soon as something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. With them nothing counts more than their own satisfaction. They bother neither about the vested interests of capitalists nor about the fate of the workers who lose their jobs if as consumers they no longer buy what they used to buy.”

Sometimes the ordinary can reveal the miraculous.

So much goodness is created by capitalists who can be fired at any time by consumers. Socialism destroys trust and human cooperation. For a case in point, look at Venezuela.

There is a meta-reason many keep looking in the wrong place. Our ego is narcissistic; our ego takes its seat at the center of the universe. Our ego discounts what it can’t understand, what it didn’t create, and what it can’t control.

Until “humble pie” becomes the latest dietary craze, people will keep searching under the streetlight for the next politician who will promise to save them. Before it is too late, behold the miracles of the modern world built by a market discovery process. Look at the nearly invisible order that fosters human cooperation and has allowed human beings to lift billions out of poverty in an amazingly short period of time.

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. Published with permission from Foundation for Economic Education. Read entire article at

The Language of Liberty series is an outreach project of the Center for Self Governance, a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in principles of liberty. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG.

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