Libertarians often represent the positive interactions within a free market using vocabulary that emphasizes the virtues of “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance”. However, as Sheldon Richman asserts in “Social Cooperation”, such language may actually generate a harmful division between individualism and social interdependence. To the lay citizen, ignorant of libertarian philosophical and economic thought, the division appears paradoxical on its face: one cannot simultaneously be working for the good of oneself and the society as a whole, can they? That this distinction is often drawn is unfortunate because it entirely misrepresents the function of the market. Individuals who are attempting to satisfy their own wants and desires will inevitably find it mutually beneficial to come together through social cooperation to attain their ends. Therefore, to better communicate the virtues of the free market, libertarians should embrace terminology that places special emphasis on the communal gain brought about through social cooperation.
To resolve this perceived paradox, libertarians must make use of Mises’ insights concerning the law of association in Human Action. Using the simple logic of “Crusoe Economics” it can be shown quite simply that both Crusoe and his island-acquaintance, Friday, are made better off by specializing in the production of a particular good, and exchanging the excess. Since the condition of both individuals is improved while in pursuit of their own ends, it is apparent that free association between actors is advantageous to society as a whole and is not a win-lose proposition.
Therefore, as people voluntarily choose to cooperate, the competition becomes not a parasitical “who-can-consume-the-most” competition, but rather a “how-can-I-produce-more-for-society-(and-subsequently-myself)” dilemma. Mises eloquently explained this counterintuitive conclusion by stating “The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier.” Competition, then, does not increase the wealth of one at the expense of society, as is often charged. Competition, instead, leads to the increased production of goods and services that promotes the well-being of all of society.
Because the artificial paradox between “individualism” and “social interdependence” is commonly propagated, those who understand the free market and the social benefits that it imbues to even individuals of the lowest economic classes must not allow the defense of capitalism to rest solely on the merits of “rugged individualism” or “self-reliance”. Instead, there must be an attempt to win the hearts (and not only the minds) of the American populace, and this can be done through a concerted effort to use jargon that does not alienate those with good intentions who may otherwise support the growing tide of socialism. There is no paradox between individualism and social interdependence! The way businesses succeed is by providing a product whose quality and price match the desires of the consumer. In this way, competition is a drive to best serve the wants and needs of society.