The “Cooperative” Enterprise Institute?

Having spent much of my professional life at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, I found Paul Rubin’s recent Wall Street Journal piece “How to Roll Back the Demonizing of Markets” intriguing. Just as CEI has since its inception, Rubin argues that markets are cooperative, rather than competitive institutions. A business will compete with a few rivals, true. But to stay in business, it must cooperate with thousands of customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and neighbors.

The popular mind tends to associate capitalism with competition, but there is actually far more cooperation. As CEI’s “I, Pencil” movie shows, these cooperative links extend outward from the company to engage millions throughout the world.

Rubin’s point is important. Competition does focus on the win/loss nature of creative destruction. But throughout that competitive contest, both sides are seeking to cooperate with their customers (each seeking to demonstrate their superiority in such cooperation), with their workers, suppliers, and shareholders. In a sense, companies compete with each other to be the better cooperator.

Rubin is discussing what we all know, but rarely take to heart: words matter. Market defenders have been too passive — too willing to adopt the anti-market rhetoric that has dominated discussions about markets since the days of the Muckrakers. Those of us who believe capitalism to be a virtuous institution must develop a positive rhetoric and an array of “I, Pencil”-style positive narratives.

CEI won’t be changing its name, but we and others should focus more on rhetoric. No one cares what you know until they know that you care. Capitalism is more “caring” than any other known institutional system. We must find ways of making its concern more apparent.