Human "Commensalism"

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Many
animals and plants live in what is called a "commensal"
fashion. This is to say that some of them feed or otherwise gain
benefits from the activities of others without depriving these of
anything at all. Commensalism is, thus, distinguished from parasitism,
whereby some animals feed off the bodies of others, thus depriving
these others of something valuable.

A
form of commensalism is evident in the market place, as when the
establishment of one business gives rise to other, adjacent ones
that take nothing from the first. Perhaps the best example is concessionaires
at sports and entertainment events. Also, if some big firm opens
a plant in a neighborhood, other, smaller, firms often start up
around it. Nothing is taken from the big firm in the process.

This
commensal relationship may be an alternative to what many see as
a the allegedly zero sum relationship of the market place, whereby
the gain of some must involve the loss of others. Indeed, a great
many people see the market place as a kind of boxing ring so that
for one to win another must lose. In fact, the market place is much
more akin to an endless marathon race in which there is a long span
of often changing positions, with some even attaching themselves
to others, we might say "commensally," so as to follow
the right pace at which to proceed or to shield oneself from head
wind.

Maybe
even the public goods problem can be understood a bit better by
analogy to commensalism. If some folks pay for a service from which
others can benefit, if the former were motivated to do so before
others, these others can benefit without the former abandoning their
pursuits. Thus if it is of value to me to give to a charity, others
could just lay back, refusing to contribute or contribute as much
as I do. Or in purchasing some goods or services, there is often
what people call the free rider problem, namely, that others will
gain from my investment. In the case of radio broadcasts by what
are called listener supported stations, this is supposed to be the
problem. Yet, in fact, I can and often do support such projects,
knowing full well that others will benefit and that I could without
making any contribution if they gave their support. But the value
I gain is great enough for me not to care much about the fact that
others, too, will benefit from my obtaining it. And this seems to
be a widespread approach, nothing idiosyncratic.

The
public goods and free rider problems seem to me to arise from a
misconception of human motivation. It assumes that everyone is focused
completely, exclusively on wringing every penny out of an opportunity,
even if this obsessive pursuit kills of the chances of reaching
the initial goal one was pursuing.

I
don't know what to call this idea-homo economicus seems not to cover
it since it is so self-defeating – but there are some people who fit
the picture. Certainly not everyone does, however. Most folks do
not mind commensal relationships so they do not feel the need to
attempt to cash in on every benefit they confer upon others, so
long as they do gain those benefits they had in mind to obtain in
the first place. Good looking women might collect from men ogling
them but don't. Architects might charge the members of a community
for the beauty they confer upon a neighborhood but they do not.

It
seems that the commensalism we find in the wild has an imperfect
but useful version in society. We can, though because of certain
human attributes such as jealousy and envy not shared with other
animals, enjoy benefits from what others do even if indirectly,
by piggy backing on their efforts and gaining opportunities in the
meanwhile. But by failing to consider this as one of the ways human
beings make out in a free society, there is a lot of nonsense going
around about exploitation and free riding, casting aspersions on
the market place instead of recognizing its superiority to alternative
ways of organizing human economic affairs.

Underlying
the suspicion of the market place is the view that only those human
relations are worthwhile that have as their motivation to benefit
others. If I merely benefit others inadvertently, indirectly, that
is not good enough.

There
may be something to this when it comes to close relationships, friendship,
familial bonds and so forth. I am supposed to want to help my friends,
not just accidentally benefit them.

Some
people, however, have argued throughout human intellectual history
that we owe it to everyone to help them. Some contemporary philosophers
even argue that each Westerner owes at least 30% of his wealth to
people in the Third World, as a matter of enforceable duty. Occasional
generosity is insufficient.

But
that is wrong. No one is responsible to help everyone, especially
total strangers, except perhaps in clear cut emergencies. Even then
one can have projects of one's own that trump such a duty of emergency.
The idea that the human race is some kind of extended family and
we must suffer when anyone suffers and help when anyone is in need
implies that our energies may be sapped endlessly and that our own
lives aren't as worthy as are those of others.

Fortunately,
the old invisible hand of Adam Smith, the free market place, makes
much of this consternation about helping people moot. We do it even
when we do not think about it. The world of commerce, as of most
other things, is not a zero sum arena.

May
8, 2000

Tibor
Machan
is Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Leatherby Center
for Entrepreneurship & Business Ethics, Argyros School of Business
& Economics, Chapman University, and Research Fellow at the
Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts