Simple Liberty  



To Alter Or To Abolish

Chapter 5

All Against All

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Before satisfying needs you must create the wherewithal to satisfy them. But before producing anything, must you not feel the need of it?

Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

The desire to sustain energy flows and to pursue happiness means all humans seek to improve their well-being. Despite the principle of scarcity, individuals look out for Number One. As with all living entities, their primary self-interest is to sustain their own energy flows. Therefore, self-interest is a natural characteristic of human existence — a naturally existing physical law.[1] Maintaining self-interests is a process of sustaining energy flows — life.

Scarcity teaches there is only so much of something to go around at any one particular moment. Scarcity arises from several causes:

  1. A relatively fixed stock of resources. The planet is spherical and finite. Although many natural resources are renewable, from an individual perspective the required renewal period for many resources far exceeds the expected lifetime of any human.
  2. Human desire is unlimited.
  3. Population dynamics. An increasing population means increased demand on a finite spherical planet.
  4. Humans are restrained by the time domain. They can act only sequentially and don’t live forever.
  5. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are no perfectly efficient energy conversion processes and all physical things are subject to decay. Therefore all resources eventually must be replaced.

The principle of scarcity therefore teaches that competition for resources is natural and normal. At first glance, this competition for resources seems to teach that, like the game of musical chairs, there always is one less chair than individuals playing the game. This perceived condition seems to imply irreconcilable conflict.[2] Some individuals believe that conflicts always will arise. In the minds of some individuals, such conflicts always will lead to Hobbesian “all against all” violence. That theory was popularized by Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century British philosopher and author of the book Leviathan. In Leviathan (Chapter 13) Hobbes wrote, “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.”

Although human violence exists and such a global outcome arguably is possible, there are several hurdles to overcome to reach the same conclusion as Hobbes. Observation reveals that Hobbes’ theory is misleading, based upon flawed presumptions, and that cooperation is more normal that strife.

One obstacle is a belief that resources are not renewable, and thus, humanity participates in a zero-sum distribution game. Yet, resources are renewed continually. Ultimately, all energy available to humans is derived from the sun. The resources provided by the earth are merely different forms or stages of that energy flow. The Law of Conservation of Energy (The First Law of Thermodynamics) teaches that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only converted into one form or another. Albert Einstein showed that matter is merely another form of energy. Strictly speaking, humans do not produce, consume, or create, but only convert energy from one form into another. Humans apply this conversion on a continual basis to renew resources. Additionally, humans possess something all other living creatures lack — a desire and a will to create. The human will allows people to act as a prime mover or first cause, thereby allowing humans to replenish resources as well as consume.[3] This ability to renew and replenish resources does not mean that some resources can be renewed only in periods exceeding the expected lifetime of any human, but only that a zero-sum perspective is too simplistic.

Second, the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains that the amount of usable energy in a closed system continually decreases. However, that law applies only to closed systems and only with respect to the entire system. That is, within a closed system, one part of the system can experience an increase in usable energy at the expense of another part losing an equivalent amount of usable energy. Observation teaches that to improve their existence, humans — living, willful, sapient beings capable of applying skills and knowledge (human discovery and diligence) — are continually renewing and replenishing themselves and their environment.[4] Additionally, the solar furnace of the sun continuously provides energy to the surface of the earth, thereby countering claims that the earth itself is a closed system. Despite a “winding down” universe, the process of life tends to create order out of disorder rather than vice-versa, replenishing as well as consuming. Thus, a closed system approach about human existence is too simplistic. Human existence is more correctly viewed as an open but isolated system.

Third, although humans can fear and act in anticipation of a perceived attack, doing so creates subsequent conditions that encourages other humans to act similarly — thereby reducing mutual safety, increasing fears, and reducing overall security. By adopting a “first-strike” mentality, people might convince themselves that other people might soon attack and therefore attack preemptively to avoid perceived attacks. Once establishing a desire to play first-strike, however, the doors open for everybody to embrace an all-against-all atmosphere and most people would prefer to avoid that environment.[5] In other words, a first-strike preemptive attitude is self-defeating and promotes an all-against-all environment rather than promoting mutual survival. Observation reveals that, with respect to initiating violence, most people prefer a “lie low” approach toward life. This “lie low” approach is merely a desire to survive as efficiently as possible. The primal instinct of self-preservation prevails.[6] Continually watching and defending against perceived potential violent attacks is inefficient. Humans tend to resort to violence only if they perceive that option as the only remaining option.

Fourth, violence is a costly method of resolving conflicts. Many, if not all, animals recognize this simple principle. Similarly, that instinct or awareness is a primary reason why most humans embrace cooperative mutual survival. Most people seek mutually reciprocating beneficial solutions to satisfy the concurrent desire for scarce resources. Although resources are scarce, humans have learned that through peaceful coexistence, most needs and wants can be obtained and happiness satisfied. Therefore, humans prefer to avoid conflict and violence.

Often disputed is the means or methods through which mutual survival might be promoted. Primarily, however, by recognizing the lack of self-sufficiency and the principle of scarcity, humans have developed exchange systems as a way of rationing goods and services that cannot be concurrently supplied to all people.[7] Not everybody can individually produce everything they need or want, and some individuals are better at producing some things than they are producing other things. Most humans recognize they are not well-suited for self-sufficiency and therefore embrace peaceful exchange as a means to satisfy mutual survival and as a means of promoting individual survival.

Human survival implies production — food, shelter and tools.[8] Both production and consumption are continuing processes of converting energy into usable forms. Production and consumption are efforts to sustain energy flows.[9] Production is an effort to convert energy from naturally existing resources into a form of stored energy that is directly useful. Consumption is a process of converting those objects back into useable energy. Thus, human consumption — a necessary component of survival, is dependant upon production, meaning humans must expend time and effort to produce.[10]

Despite all living creatures needing to consume to survive, production always must precede consumption, even when living at a simple hunter-gatherer level. Fruit trees must blossom, develop fruit, and human labor must be expended to gather the fruit for consumption. Trees must be harvested with labor to produce lumber before the wood can be used to construct a house.

Without consumption there would be no need to produce; but people do consume — they must consume — and they recognize those consumptive needs and wants. Therefore they produce. To survive and pursue happiness humans always must consume. Because individuals do not possess many things they want to consume, they continually exchange what they produce for the things other people have produced. Avoiding the costly efforts of violence leads to exchange.[11]

Although most people live within certain limits, theoretically human desires are virtually limitless. No individual can completely satisfy all needs and wants — the pursuit of happiness. Individuals are continually seeking ways to satisfy themselves and achieve happiness, and through production and exchange, individuals are indirectly seeking ways to fulfill the needs and wants of other people.[12] This process depends upon developing human diligence, including skills of cooperation. Pursuing happiness without violence depends upon an ability to exchange.[13] This exchange process tends to lead to a division of labor, and fundamentally, this division is a mechanism for avoiding violence while serving self-interests and pursuing happiness. That is, pursuing and specializing in certain skills is merely an avenue for producing and exchanging more efficiently and satisfying individual happiness.

Observing history affirms that competition for resources tends to encourage cooperation rather than violence. As population increased dramatically in the past several hundred years, new technology and tools helped improve the quality of life. Increased population and improved technology increased the division of labor. An increased division of labor improved technology and tools. Using technology and tools requires specialization of skills and knowledge, further establishing the division of labor. A high division of labor necessarily implies a great dependence upon one another. Increased population not only added more mouths to feed, but greatly added to the supply of creativity and production. Humans became more efficient at sustaining energy flows and pursuing their happiness. Such an observation demonstrates that most individuals inherently realize that peaceful exchange and cooperation are saner and less costly than violence.

Therefore humans have proven an ability to convert the potential for violent competition into mutually beneficial exchange. The observation that many things are desired in common by many individuals and people generally desire mutual survival encourages cooperation rather than conflict.[14]

However, Hobbes was correct to notice the potential violent nature of competition. Ambition — the pursuit of happiness — recognizes the natural world of struggle and survival, creates the desire to exist, and creates a desire for competition.[15] These observations reveal two types of competition: destructive and cooperative.[16] The former type of competition is potentially violent. The latter type is the kind expressed by Adam Smith with his concept of the “invisible hand.”[17]

Destructive competition is based upon individual survival and seeks to damage and eliminate competitors. Even when manifested in groups of people the focus is on one group surviving over another group. Destructive competition tends to promote fear, a zero-sum perspective, a first-strike mentality, embraces certain forms of trespass, and opposes the desire for mutual survival. Destructive competition is a desire to create virtual perpetual motion.

Cooperative competition is based upon promoting mutual survival. Smith’s “invisible hand” is a process where individuals compete to improve their level of happiness but compete in a cooperative manner through peaceful exchange and without trespassing against other people. Individuals tend to regulate their own actions because of family and community ties, thereby imposing self-imposed limits to their actions. Promoting mutual survival is therefore regulated by various customs and traditions.

Destructive competition pits organism against organism, individual against individual, group against group. Cooperative competition focuses organism, individual, and group against the environment — the simple but shared desire to survive. The former embraces Hobbes’ conclusion of “all against all” while the latter embraces “all for one and one for all.” Destructive competition is a “winner takes all” approach and cooperative competition is an “everyone wins” approach.

Both creation and destruction are responses to the human need to transcend the mere act of existence, responses to find meaning and purpose in life. Despite the inherent desire to create, the desire to destroy prevails when the desire to create cannot be satisfied. The former desire tends to lead to happiness and the latter to suffering.[18]

Cooperative competition is saner than destructive competition or direct violence, but the reality of Hobbes’ world must be faced — conflict still exists and cannot be ignored. Human desire is virtually unlimited and scarcity creates numerous limitations. Cooperative competition only becomes a guiding principle in promoting mutual survival, not a hard rule. The desire to sustain energy flows with minimal input and the tension between pursuing happiness and preventing trespass never disappear. Hobbes’ violent model is not an inevitable conclusion, but neither is cooperative competition. A desire to avoid conflict is status quo in human nature,[19] but potential conflict cannot be ignored. If the foundations promoting cooperative competition are not maintained then destructive competition will prevail.

There are only two ways living entities can sustain energy flows:[20]

  1. Predation and raw acquisition — consuming energy already in usable form.
  2. Production — converting energy into usable and consumable forms.

The two options are not exclusive. Observing nature reveals that within the biological realm both options are legitimate and viable choices to sustain energy flows. Both methods exist concurrently. The first method is instinctive in all life forms. Except for a few animals, such as honey bees or humans, most animals sustain their energy flows through predation and raw acquisition. Ancient human hunter-gatherers did likewise.

Humans are one of the few life forms that takes noticeable advantage of the second method. Within human groups, production tends to be mutually advantageous, whereas raw acquisition tends to be singularly advantageous. Although humans recognize the second method as a common means of satisfying needs and wants, the first method nonetheless exists. The second method leads to overall peaceful coexistence of all participants. Although not requiring conflict, the raw acquisition method leads to potential conflict.[21] As population increases and encourages more demand on resources, raw acquisition has profound social effects. Conflict is inevitable.

Within the option of raw acquisition, biologists recognize two general means for satisfying energy flows:[22]

  1. Scrambling.
  2. Interference.

In the first mode, competitors for scarce resources ignore one another and simply consume resources as necessary to sustain energy flows. Conflict stays low or non-existent. This form of raw acquisition resembles cooperative competition and peaceful coexistence. In the second mode, competitors fight for or defend access to resources. The second mode is adversarial raw acquisition and is predatory in nature. This form of raw acquisition resembles destructive competition and violent existence. Within the second mode, competitors can do one of the following:

  1. Compete for and take naturally existing resources.
  2. Forcibly take things previously acquired or produced by competitors.

Humans use both production (and subsequent exchange) and raw acquisition to satisfy their energy flows. They determine which method to use based upon three criteria:[23]

  1. Opportunity.
  2. Preference.
  3. Perception.

Biologically, humans have ancestral roots as predators.[24] This urge continues to this day, although tempered significantly by the ability to domesticate animals and partially manage their environment. Therefore, adversarial raw acquisition is a normal urge within humans. Generally, individuals will use whichever method provides the greater benefits versus the perceived potential risks based upon those three criteria. Humans respond to the general interaction between production and raw acquisition.[25] At an individual level humans try to determine the optimal level between both methods and at a group level everybody involved determines the level of inter-group production, exchange, and fighting to occur.[26]

Conflict occurs when the balance is disturbed between the pursuit of happiness and the desire to prevent trespass. A prevailing reason humans and many other animal species prefer cooperative competition is the potential response of preemptive first-strike thinking and the potential costs of violence. Preemptive thinking and violence increases uncertainty and increases fear. When uncertainty and fear are high, decisiveness about the benefits of raw acquisition decreases. Therefore, people are more likely to choose cooperative competition.[27] Cooperative competition rather than violence improves the living standards of all participants.[28] Therefore, cooperation is nominally a substitutive response to limit aggression.[29] Smith’s “invisible hand” is not so much associated with competition, but is more of a voluntary restraint to avoid destructive competition and violence.[30]

[Image: Author’s Pictorial Concept of Sustaining Biological Energy Flows. Important to the text.]

Figure 3

Survival requires work — converting energy to satisfy desires of consumption and happiness. The Second Law of Thermodynamics teaches that humans must continually replenish themselves. The Law of Conservation of Energy teaches that humans can convert and renew resources. Humans therefore want to consume and produce in a conserving and efficient manner. Humans try to satisfy desires with as little effort as possible.[31] That pursuit includes a desire to avoid conflict.

Individuals cooperate and exchange because they want to, and because they perceive they will benefit from such actions.[32] This relationship increases mutual dependence,[33] and the benefits include increasing the chance for survival and mutually helping each other pursue and achieve happiness.

Mutual exchange generally occurs only when an individual believes the exchange will reduce his or her labor to produce the same goods and services. The exchange improves efficiency and reduces the labor required for that individual to sustain energy flows and achieve happiness. The other individual in an exchange believes likewise. In other words, the parties involved in an exchange seek reciprocity.[34] They seek exchange because the cost of self-sufficiency or the risks of adversarial raw acquisition is higher. Reciprocity promotes a desire for mutual survival and is largely a response of avoiding the potential violence of adversarial raw acquisition.

In an environment where individuals are at liberty to pursue their own happiness, they tend to seek cooperation and exchange. Scarcity then encourages efficiency, which encourages a division of labor, and the division of labor improves production efforts as each individual specializes in producing specific goods or services. The reason for this cooperation is not the direct result of any purposeful design or social order, but simply that scarcity is a natural condition of life and humans prefer to avoid violence.[35] This cooperation succeeds because people are trying to satisfy their self-interests.[36] Self-interest is not restricted to raw selfishness — people realize their lack of self sufficiency and seek reciprocating relationships to satisfy their self-interests. Scarcity never can be eliminated, but only controlled. Humans produce primarily because they consume, and they must consume because they desire to survive; and survival is part of pursuing happiness.

Nonetheless a Hobbesian “all against all” world is possible — and likely — if humans cannot satisfy their energy flows. Certain conditions encourage a Hobbesian mentality. Fundamentally, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of usable energy, regardless of the form or nature of that energy. Three criteria are necessary for humans to sustain their energy flows and avoid conflict:[37]

  1. The liberty to travel freely.
  2. The liberty to exchange ideas and information.
  3. The liberty to defend and sustain life.

Without travel no human can sustain energy flows. Human exchange systems are impossible without the liberty to exchange ideas and information. Adversarial raw acquisition and “might makes right” prevail if nobody possesses an ability to defend life and peacefully acquired resources.

Ignoring or suppressing these elements of human existence will lead to destructive competition rather than cooperative competition. Adversarial raw acquisition will prevail rather than peaceful production and exchange. This destructive atmosphere leads to a desire to control and manipulate other people. The desire to control other people violates the fundamental desire to pursue happiness while preventing trespass. Uncertainty and fear will increase. The sense of security dwindles. A proverbial rolling snowball appears.

These observations are critical to understanding human relationships. Fail to understand these fundamental root causes will lead to faulty presumptions within worldviews.

Conflict will increase when people develop worldviews that promote but mask adversarial raw acquisition. The result is not a social or legal system promoting mutual survival, but promoting individual survival and “might makes right.” A serious challenge is not that humans cannot or do not recognize these fundamental principles of the natural world, but that often they pursue worldviews that exempt themselves or others from having to abide by those naturally existing physical laws. Inevitably, conflict is the result.


Terms of Use

Next: Chapter 6 — Society

Table of Contents



[1] Tannehills, The Market for Liberty, p. 8.

[2] Mises, Human Action, p. 673.

[3] Watner, “The Proprietary Theory of Justice in the Libertarian Tradition,” p. 311.

[4] Hoppe, “On Certainty and Uncertainty,” p. 50.

[5] Gregory S. Kavka, “Hobbes’ War of All Against All,” The Social Contract Theorists, p. 4–5.

[6] Heilbronner, Robert, “The Future of Capitalism,” 1966, reprinted in Views on Capitalism. p. 226.

[7] Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions, p. 45.

[8] Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 80.

[9] Soddy, Wealth, Virtual wealth and Debt, p. 47–48.

[10] Soddy, Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt, p. 113.

[11] Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 35.

[12] Spencer, “The Social Organism,” The Man Versus The State, p. 385.

[13] Benson, “Economic Freedom and the Evolution of Law,” p. 216.

[14] Mises, Human Action, p. 673.

[15] Davidson and Rees-Mogg, The Sovereign Individual, p. 376.

[16] Davidson and Rees-Mogg, The Sovereign Individual, p. 380.

[17] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II.

[18] Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 38.

[19] Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, p. 114.

[20] Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, pp. 9–10. Veblen called production workmanship.

[21] Hirshleifer, “The Dark Side of the Force,” p. 2.

[22] Hirshleifer, “Natural Economy Versus Political Economy,” p. 324.

[23] Hirshleifer, “The Dark Side of the Force,” pp. 4–6.

[24] Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative, pp. 253–263.

[25] Hirshleifer, “The Dark Side of the Force,” p. 9.

[26] Hirshleifer, “Anarchy and Its Breakdown,” p. 28.

[27] Hirshleifer, “The Dark Side of the Force,” p. 7.

[28] Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, p. 6.

[29] Hirshleifer, “The Dark Side of the Force,” p. 4.

[30] Hirshleifer, “Natural Economy Versus Political Economy,” p. 325.

[31] Curtiss, The Tariff Idea, p. 18.

[32] Spencer, “The Great Political Superstition,” The Man Versus The State, p. 154.

[33] Hirshleifer, “Anarchy and Its Breakdown,” p. 28.

[34] Spencer, “The Great Political Superstition,” The Man Versus The State, p. 154.

[35] Mises, Human Action, p. 674.

[36] Spencer, “The Social Organism,” The Man Versus The State, p. 386.

[37] Love, Human Conduct and the Law, pp. 10–28.