When Competition is Good for the Host: A Potential New Paradigm for Political Science and Economics
Carmi Turchick, Independent Scholar.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Carmi Turchick, 402 South Star Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85719.
Competition for fitness-limiting resources is a primary force of selection in evolution. For viruses and parasites, a host body is the resource they compete over. For selfish individuals, groups of altruists are the resource. Recent work indicates that if there are multiple poorly-related viruses (Chao et al., 2000), parasites (Johnson & Hoverman, 2012), or selfish (Eldakar, Farrell, & Wilson, 2008) infecting a host, then the competition between these exacts a cost which can reduce their effect and/or virulence in the host. In viruses, for example, it has been shown that such competition can select for lower virulence (Chao et al., 2000). My conjecture is that similar processes may occur with sub-groups infecting national "superorganisms" (Hölldobler, & Wilson 2008). Evidence suggests that the more diverse and numerous political parties, interest groups, religions, industries, and corporations are in a nation, the less harm they usually cause the host population and the more symbiotic they become. A robust national immune system of laws and regulations may also influence virulence. If my conjecture is correct, it may provide fertile ground for new insights in Economics, Political Science, and other fields. I will also suggest ways in which my conjecture may be falsified.
When Competition is Good for the Host: A Potential New Paradigm for Political Science and Economics
There are many questions in Economics and Political Science which currently lack broadly agreed upon answers, and there are few meta-theories which might point to answers and allow for testable predictions and hypotheses. For example: monopolies, cartels, dictatorships – why are these harmful? There are laws against monopolies and cartels in many countries which exist because the harm they caused was abundantly clear. What causes the “oil/resource curse” (Ross, 2012; Bhattacharyya & Hodler, 2009)? Why is democracy, government “of, by, and for the people,” usually more beneficial for a nation than communism, the “dictatorship” of the people? We are often told that more competition will benefit the consumer: is this true? If true, is it always true, or are there required conditions? Can biology point us to a general principle that can be useful in answering the above questions, and in guiding us away from governments and policies that will harm the general population and towards those that will usually benefit them? For now, my answer is a highly qualified maybe.
Limitations and Definitions of Concepts
There are some important conceptual limitations to cover, as well as some important terms to define, before I proceed. I am not claiming that there is an actual evolutionary process occurring which involves the selection of corporations or industries or political groups. These entities do not replicate, and asserting that any sort of evolution was involved would require a type of “group selection” which is not theoretically viable. I also want to emphasize that it is important to avoid excessive reductionism which might obscure the many other important cultural, historical, and geographic factors that affect the health of a nation and its people. Finally, by using “virulence” outside of biological realms, I mean it in the generalized sense of “harmful,” since the usual biology definition of causing host mortality cannot work (and does not work even within biology when examining infections of superorganisms). I therefore suggest that income inequality, corruption, and lack of human rights and freedoms may be used as indicators of virulence, but I am open to others suggesting new indicators in their future work.
Evolution of Virulence in Biology
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that there are sometimes benefits to being infected with a greater diversity of parasites (i.e. “co-infection,” “multiple infection,” or “super-infection” in biology). It is critical to realize that parasites may still provide some benefits to the host – that there is a continuous spectrum from parasitic to mutualistic or symbiotic (Ewald, 1987). The exact balance of benefit to cost can be hard to determine, however, and the exact nature of the relationship can vary over time depending on the fitness of the host and other circumstances. The important question to be posed is: under what conditions do parasites become more or less virulent?
Studies of virulence and competition in multiple infections (i.e. hosts infected by varied species) and co-infections (i.e. hosts infected by varied strains of one species) give mixed results: sometimes virulence increases, and sometimes it decreases (Schmid-Hempel, 2012). Even studies with similar parameters have yielded both results: for example, two studies of multiple infections of humans with malaria showed an increase in virulence (Satti et al., 1998; Zwetyenga et al., 1999), while two other studies showed decreased virulence (Al-Yaman et al., 1997; Smith et al., 1999). While Turner and Chao found that low relatedness among viruses reduced virulence (Turner & Chao, 1999; Chao et al., 2000), other studies with more included variables found increased relatedness resulted in lower virulence (Anderson & May, 1982; Frank, 1992). Johnson and Hoverman conclude that “increases in parasite richness and antagonism in nature will decrease virulent infections,” yet emphasize that “the effects of parasite richness...were context dependent” (2012, p. 8006).
Two more issues limit our ability to depend on biology for a firm answer to our question:
1) Studies of multiple infections and co-infections involving social parasites infecting a social host superorganism (which would roughly correspond to human society, according to our conjecture) do not exist, nor are there extent models or theories of what the results of such infections might be.
2) Mode of transmission is an important issue for the evolution of virulence, and political parties do not engage in transmission per se, while corporations and industries may or may not do so. There do not appear to be any useful comparisons along these lines.
Keeping all of the above in mind, we still have evidence that evolution from parasitic to symbiotic is not uncommon in nature and that formerly parasitic species can come to play critical roles in the survival of the organism. The human body is always host to more cells that are bacterial than human (Wenner, 2007), and these bacteria – estimated at between three and five hundred species in the gut alone (Guarner & Malagelada, 2003) – could not have begun as symbiotic or mutualistic, even if some are now critical for our digestion, regulation of inflammation, defense against infections, and other functions (O'Hara & Shanahan, 2006). At some point, each evolved to have low average virulence and to provide symbiotic benefits to their host. However, some of these retain the potential to be virulent: for example, being implicated in multisystem organ failure when the immune system of their host becomes too weak (Guarner & Malagelada, 2003).
Host-parasite interactions – or, more exactly, host immune system-parasite interactions – are the other major influence on the evolution of virulence. In general, strong host immune responses encourage the evolution of lower virulence, while weak immune responses encourage very high virulence. For example, differences between hosts were found to be the critical factor in determining which co-infecting malaria strain prevailed in mice (de Roode et al., 2004). Multiple infections can also allow normally avirulent parasites to become virulent if the other parasite(s) compromise the host immune system (Hughes & Boomsma, 2004).
There is then a constant evolutionary battle being waged where hosts seek to defend themselves, symbiotic organisms attempt to help, and infecting parasites evolve to best increase their fitness. Parasites seek to cope with other infecting parasites either by direct competition for host resources, cooperation to mutually exploit the host, or by using effects the other parasite has on the host to their own benefit. Relative strengths of the host, their allies, and all of the infecting parasites appears to often determine whether the result is higher or lower virulence; a strong immune system and well-matched multiple infecting agents and/or co-infections should usually result in lower virulence. Power imbalances in favor of one parasite should reliably select for increased virulence.
Finally, while it does not directly relate to virulence, it is perhaps valuable to note that there are common strategies which parasites use – particularly, but not only, in the social insects. Among these strategies is circumvention of the host's ability to recognize the parasite as not being part of the host. According to Nash and Boomsma (2008), “the majority of long-term social parasites gain access to colony resources by exploiting the signals used by the social insects themselves” (p. 57). (This brings to mind a certain tendency to wave flags and loudly proclaim love of country and constitution.) Other social parasites engage in appeasement signals, even giving a small reward to the hosts; another strategy is to use what are called “propaganda signals” – for example, releasing pheromones that cause the host to panic, or to think that some of their own are hostile invaders (Nash & Boomsma, 2008). These strategies also likely sound quite familiar to those who study Political Science.
Selfish Punishment and Competition
Until quite recently, the study of the evolution of altruism was missing a critical insight about selfish: that they are selfish. They do not want to share the exploitation of altruists with other selfish; altruists are a fitness-limiting resource for selfish, in evolutionary terms. What this means is that selfish compete with other selfish by engaging in “selfish punishment” of other selfish. In 2006, Eldakar, Wilson, and O'Gorman published an interesting paper showing that those most likely to punish cheaters in their experiment were also the most likely to cheat themselves. This pattern was then found to exist in various societies, and to not be culturally specific (Herrmann et al., 2008).
As Eldakar details in a more recent paper (Eldakar et al., 2013), this pattern can also be found in widely diverse species and contexts: from dominant primates who reap benefits by paying the cost of maintaining social order, to wasps who police worker-laid eggs while laying their own, to Scrub Jays who steal from food caches they defend from others, and even to pre-school children who control resources by manipulating their peers. Eldakar (2013) states: “However, when punishment takes the form of cheaters targeting other cheaters, this competition among cheaters transforms selfishness to a self-limiting strategy, fostering an increase in altruism in the population” (p. 1550).
This appears to be essentially the same process that we see in parasites competing with each other: the competition can benefit the host and reduce virulence. However, I believe we do need to distinguish between the mutualism of dominant primates, who gain for themselves by paying the cost of maintaining social order and thus providing a direct benefit for the group, and those who benefit the group simply by limiting their own competition. The group of primates needs to have social order kept, fights broken up, and so on, just as our stomachs need help digesting food and our nations need governments to maintain public roads, regulate commerce, enforce laws and defend the superorganism from outside attacks. Government may be parasitic, but it is a necessary parasite.
Parasites and Political Science
It is common for those on both ends of the political spectrum to assert that government is a parasite, and that it therefore should be shrunken considerably or entirely done away with. Corporate groups state that the regulations of the government harm their ability to thrive. If we were to analyze the role of government in the national superorganism, would it be virulently parasitic, mutualistic, or symbiotic? Are government regulations the tapeworm parasite eating our nourishment, or the symbiotic gut flora helping us to digest while protecting us from E. coli? Are government regulations the acquired immune response of the national superorganism to previous infections, or a parasite attacking our friendly symbiotic corporations? The answers to these questions appear to depend on your form of government and your economic diversity.
Kotera, Okada, and Samreth show that increased governmental regulation correlates with a decrease in corruption, as long as the government is sufficiently democratic in nature. They also show that increased governmental regulation correlates with an increase in corruption, if the government is not sufficiently democratic (Kotera et al., 2012). Graeff and Mehlkop come to a similar conclusion, finding (to their apparent surprise) that, in rich countries, “bigger government results in lower levels of corruption” (2002, p. 611). This was not true in poor countries. Of course, democracy and national wealth are highly correlated, as we examine below, so these two studies are effectively in agreement. However, Alexander Hamilton claims that the ratio of elected to non-elected officials is determinative of corruption, and that the number of non-elected increases faster than elected with more regulation – resulting in increased corruption or “rent-seeking” in democracies with more regulation (Hamilton, 2013). One must keep in mind, though, that Hamilton is writing for The World Bank, which supports an explicit anti-regulation agenda.
Which view is right? Perhaps a concise summation of the history of the relationship between government and the governed from the signing of the Magna Carta to the present will be helpful:
There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power. (Roosevelt, 1912)
Stephen Pinker offers a more thorough detailing of the steadily reduced brutality and harm done by government in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). While Pinker attributes the decline to the rise of humanism and new philosophical insights into compassion and justice, it seems foolish to ignore the real changes in the structure of society and distribution of power that were also taking place. It was the fact that the Barons held London by force that compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta. It was the later rise of the merchant class that created the power base to push for further limitations on government, engendering competition with the nobility and kings with the result of decreased governmental virulence. The strong correlation between nations deemed “full democracies” by The Economist in their Democracy Index (2012) and nations with diverse, well-developed economies is readily apparent: 20 of the 25 full democracies are industrially-developed Western nations (counting Japan and South Korea). Only three developed Western nations are put into the “flawed democracy” category: France, Israel, and Greece. It is my conjecture that this is no accident: that, instead, it is at least partially the product of the process whereby the merchant and then corporate parasites competed with the governmental parasite and reduced its virulence.
Unlimited monarchies often abused their nations with ruinous taxes, tortured and killed citizens for petty crimes or for expressing thoughts not approved by the King or official religion, seized property that they wanted for themselves or for their friends, engaged in rampant corruption, and had extreme income inequality. The same general pattern holds for dictatorships today: virulence is high when one parasite has a monopoly on power.
While unlimited monarchies and dictatorships have few defenders or proponents in modern Political Science, the same is not true of fascism, communism, anarchy, neo-liberalism, and libertarianism. All of these propose to either unite the governmental and corporate parasites; to eliminate one parasite, the other, or both; or to greatly limit the ability of one to compete with the other. If my conjecture is correct, and evidence so far on these types of governments or policies seems to strongly support it, all of these forms of government will reliably increase virulence in our parasites because they reduce or eliminate competition between them. Anarchy, the theoretical final state of communism (wherein the state “withers away”), neo-liberalism, and libertarianism all propose to compromise or disable the laws and regulations (i.e. the adapted immune system) of the national superorganism. A weakened or disabled immune system always leads to higher virulence in infected organisms.
Relevant deregulations preceded the Savings and Loan crisis, the housing bubble crash/Wall Street disaster, the BP disaster in the Gulf, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, West Virginia's Sago mine disaster, the California brown-outs and the accompanying Enron debacle, the Lac-Megantic train disaster, and the NECC drug compounding company that caused the deaths of 44 people: weakening a national immune system also seems to frequently lead to increased virulence.
Our conjecture further suggests that competition within government and for political power, in the form of competing political parties, will also reliably reduce virulence. It seems to be no accident that the separation of powers has been so beneficial, and was copied or emulated by many other nations. However, it is predicted that where political parties become too similar to each other, or when all large political parties become closely aligned with corporate interests, virulence will increase in the form of higher inequality and corruption.
Monopolies, Cartels, the Oil Curse: Virulent Economics
If competition is the source of lower virulence in corporations, then we should expect that a lack of competition or large competitive imbalances of power (as exists in monopolies, cartels, and situations where one very profitable resource can be readily controlled) will increase virulence. We should also predict that, for example, large trans-national corporations operating in small impoverished nations, or corporate giants like Wal-Mart moving into areas with only small local businesses, will usually have high levels of virulence.
The creation of the anti-monopoly and anti-cartel antitrust laws in America reflected the broad agreement that monopolies and cartels were harmful to competition and the consumer. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which only one senator opposed, passed with the intention of “protect[ing] the consumers by preventing arrangements designed, or which tend, to advance the cost of goods to the consumer" (Senator John Sherman, qtd. in Lowitt, 2013). The passage of the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act in 1914 gave America greater means to combat the robber barons, and New Deal fair-trade laws and legislation like the Packers and Stockyards Act further broke the power of outsized corporations and fostered healthy competition (Lynn, 2012). As Lynn notes: “In the 1920s, the five largest beef packers controlled upward of 70 percent of the U.S. market; by 1975, that figure had dropped to
roughly 25 percent” (2012, p. 31). However, the Reagan Revolution reversed this trend by giving up on efforts to promote competition. The reversal was rapid, as evidenced by this quote from 2001: “Today the top four—IBP, ConAgra, Excel (a subsidiary of Cargill), and National Beef—control about 85 percent of the market” (Schlosser). Employee wages dropped in the meatpacking industry from being among the highest paid industrial jobs in 1970 to one of the lowest by 2000 (Schlosser, 2001). Lynn details the very real harm caused to citizens in many industries, from poultry farming to computer programming, where similar concentrations of power have been allowed to arise since 1981 (Lynn, 2012). An imbalance of economic power appears to encourage virulence.
Similarly, John Madeley’s book Big Business, Poor People: How Transnational Corporations Damage the World’s Poor details many specific harms caused by the power imbalance between trans-national corporations and poor, economically undeveloped nations, succinctly stating that they “can be highly detrimental to a poorer country’s political, economic, and social health” (Madeley, 2008, p. 17). Again, we see high virulence for the national superorganism in the absence of balanced competition.
Ironically, some alternatives to exploitation by large trans-national corporations may be worse in some ways if there is, for example, oil, or another highly profitable, readily monopolized, and government-controlled resource in an economically undeveloped nation. This is the oil or resource curse. The sudden influx of wealth to the government of an impoverished and most often undemocratic nation encourages a large increase in government, as those in charge engage in patronage and hire friends and relatives (Robinson et al., 2006). As we saw above, increased regulation in non-democratic nations correlated with increased corruption (Kotera et al., 2012). Emerson (2006) suggests that corruption and competition are negatively correlated, and that corruption therefore negatively affects economic development (unsurprisingly). If our conjecture is correct, the above simply details the process of increasing virulence when the government gains considerable economic power alongside its normal powers. As for Wal-Mart: while their prices are beneficially low, the presence of a Wal-Mart in a county does increase the poverty rate in the county over time (Goetz & Swaminathan, 2006). It should be noted, however, that there are those who defend monopolies and assert that they are “necessarily evolutionary, dynamic, creative processes,” and furthermore that “without some monopoly presence no economy can ever hope to maximize human welfare improvement over time” (Mckenzie & Lee, 2008, p. xvii). Even in the case of Wal-Mart, some claim that the consumer benefits from the competition that supercenters bring to local communities, forcing other stores to lower their prices, and that the lower prices Wal-Mart offers are a benefit for low-income households (Hausman & Liebtag, 2007).
While we do seem to find evidence of a similar pattern in many systems – from the evolution of virulence in bacteria, to the self-limiting process in human selfishness, to national political and economic systems – we also have evidence at every level (or at least expert claims) contradicting our conjecture. If monopolies indeed are beneficial, then our conjecture fails, as it may when the burgeoning field of parasitology reaches greater levels of understanding about the evolution of virulence. If it is shown that corruption is not related to power imbalances and a dearth of competition, our conjecture fails. If it is shown that deregulation as a broad policy always benefits the nation, then our related conjecture that laws and regulations are equivalent to the immune system of the nation also fails.
However, if scholars working in many fields use my conjecture and find it supported by the evidence, it may over time become a hypothesis in which we can have some confidence. This may then allow us to dismiss some proposed political systems as being inherently faulty – and, more importantly, it may allow us to optimize our capitalist democracies so that both corporations and government have the lowest possible virulence and provide the greatest possible mutual benefit to us, their host.
 With the exception of cultural evolution, which we will leave for others who may wish to consider its role here.
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