Blatant selfishness is toxic, regardless of the scale that it occurs.
Evolution, differential survival of variants in different contexts, can produce extremely complex outcomes.
Many different factors about the context of evolution are important.
If evolution was all about the individual, we couldn’t exist, because each of us individuals is the result of a vast colony of cells operating cooperatively (some 100 trillion cells in each of us).
Each of those cells may share the same basic genome, but how it gets expressed in different contexts leads to differences as great as liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, immune cells, etc (aspects of a modern economy anyone?).
Within the context of the body, cells do not compete for nutrients, they exist in an environment where all their basic needs are met (not so common in modern economies).
As soon as there is sexual mixing of genetic material, populations can have characteristics very similar to individuals, and selection can and does happen at multiple levels simultaneously, and at every level is sensitive to the contexts (including boundaries and pressures) present at that level.
Looked at purely in a strategic sense, one can categorise the different sorts of strategies present into two broad sets – competitive and cooperative.
Which set is most successful depends very much on the context present.
In contexts where there are sufficient resources for all, cooperative strategic systems will always deliver greater benefits than competitive systems, provided that there are sufficient secondary strategies present to detect and remove cheating strategies – as pure cooperation is always vulnerable to being overwhelmed by cheats (think immune systems to fight caner and invading organisms). Cooperation is stable only when a sufficient set of attendant strategies are present. This can be observed in many levels of biology and culture – if one takes the time to look.
So the idea of individual selfishness can be a successful strategy if the context is one that does not have sufficient resources for all.
Market based economic systems, in and of their own internal sets of incentives, impose competitive environments on most people. From the large systems perspective, this is a high risk strategy for all.
If markets are used as a tool, within a higher strategic framework that is fundamentally cooperative, and ensures that all individuals have sufficient resources to do whatever they responsibly choose (where responsibility has many levels of both social and ecological contexts), then we can deliver outcomes that work for all that are far safer and more productive than any possible competitive system.
The logic of Games Theory and its further abstractions is clear on that.
Technology has the power to produce more with less faster than our population has been doubling, and can continue to do that for a while yet, and we are approaching the limits of what can be done within the energy budgets of this planet, and what most would consider reasonable degrees of freedom and resources.
Fully automated systems have the potential to use sunlight and mass from off planet to create orbiting habitats that could provide vast amounts of surface area, energy and resources for any groups that wish to continue high rates of reproduction, and even then, physical limits imposed by the speed of light are only a couple of millennia away, so the absolute need to limit reproduction cannot be escaped for long.
Coming back to David’s topic of this essay more directly, he is essentially correct in a sense. And that sense is that exclusively short term self interest at any level is counter to long term self interest at all levels – that is logic 101.
Of course we all need to ensure our own survival at all levels, and the most effective way to do that is to act cooperatively towards all others if there is a context of sufficient resources for all.
And such cooperation cannot be naive cooperation, we must start with a large set of strategies to detect cheating and remove any benefit and bring the transgressor back to cooperation at the highest level (as per Ostrom et al).
And we also need to devote significant resources to exploring new sets of strategies for detecting cheating – thus reinforcing the old adage, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
And yes, we all have our competitive natures, and we can all find healthy contexts for the expression of those natures, be it on the golf course, the rugby field, at the bridge club, or where-ever.
And the numbers and the logic are clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that if any of us want a reasonable probability of living a very long time, then we must be within a context that at the highest levels is cooperative, delivers relative abundance to all, and has as its highest value set individual life and individual liberty (both of those within responsible social and ecological contexts).
Markets, for all their complexity, are fundamentally predicated on scarcity, and in and of their own incentive structures tend to deliver relative scarcity to the majority – that cannot be stable. We need attendant strategies to counter that. Some sort of universal basic income seems to me to be probably the most effective transition strategy, given the many different levels of systems present in our modern financial economy.