The hegemony argument is another example of people making a side issue foundational. Hegemony has value as a descriptor. But when you make achieving hegemony the primary concern of a system, you change the nature of the system.
Another example of the modern tendency to make side issues foundational is the over emphasis of the role of competition in the free market.
Freedom is the foundation of the free market. The ideal of the free market is that the individual has the ability to invest their time and resources as they see fit.
You can prove that competition is not foundational simply by looking at the way people behave when they have freedom. When people are free, they end up engaging in a mix of both cooperative and competitive activities.
Looking through the table of contents of The Wealth of Nations we see that Adam Smith spends most of his time talking about issues such as the division of labor, rents, the division of stock. All of these issues deal with mechanisms of cooperation in the free market.
Cooperation and competition are complementary forces. The terms serve as valuable descriptors, but people err when they say competition is the foundation of the free market.
The Market as Organized Cooperation
When you get down to the brass tacks, you will find that all financial transactions are cooperative in nature. When you hire on with an employer, you are not engaged in competition with the employer. You are actually making a contract to cooperate with the employer. When you buy food from the local market, you are engaged in a well orchestrated cooperative effort to bring food from the fields to your family.
In most cases, the primary factor in choosing a service is how well the service provider cooperates with you. Service providers compete by their willingness to cooperate.
The Opposite of What You Expect
When you create a system that overemphasizes one side of a complementary force, you often end up with the opposite effect than you intended. The street preacher agitating for unity against his foe causes greater division despite his illusion that he is a unifier. Peace activists who make unjust compromises in a short cut to peace might accidentally lay the foundations for a worse war. A warmonger might accidentally lay the foundation for peace when people listening to his agitations realize that they must address an issue or go to war. As we live in a fluid universe, it is not uncommon for actions to have the opposite effect than intended.
My observation is that systems that overemphasize competition tend to create less competition. When you overemphasize competition in the market, people develop the illusion that they must be big to compete. Look at the current marketplace. You will often see profitable businesses merging simply because their owners feel that they must be big to compete. I've seen many people fail to go into businesses simply because they felt that they weren't big enough or emotionally equipped to compete. When businesses merge, or people fail to enter the market, there is less competition.
Even worse, when people are driven by competition they are apt to undertake anti-market activities to undermine competitors. When you look at the dynamics small towns, you will often find a small number of leading merchants monopolizing main street.
Conversely, emphasizing cooperation has a strange habit of creating more competition.
Most successful small businesses are formed by people who wish to cooperate to achieve a specific end. Let's say a manufacturer needs a new and improved widget to go in their device. When the designers' thoughts are dominated by ideas of competition, they are likely to try and develop the widget internally. A designer who sees the market as inherently cooperative is more open to seeing the widget developed in cooperation with a third party.
The stock exchange is a good example of cooperation. In a stock exchange, people cooperate in forming a market to trade goods. The people in this market are keenly interested in having a diversity of stock to trade. Investors will actively seek out the creation of business so they have something to trade.
Affiliate marketing is an example of cooperation the internet. Affiliate marketing is a system where web sites form cooperative relations with merchants to sell products. Affiliate marketing has drawn a large number of small web sites and small merchants into the online market. Many of these companies would not have existed if not for the cooperative nature of affiliate marketing.
Crass Commercial Intrusion: My attempt at affiliate marketing makes about $200.00 a year. I understand that people who know what they are doing can make a living from the market. My problem is that I am more interested in things from a conceptual level than from an implementation level.
Sadly, people who are driven by competition feel that they must dominate the market and engage in activities specifically designed to undermine the affiliate market. I would not be surprised if affiliate marketing completely vanished in the next couple of years as the major players lock all of the small players out of the system.
Internalizing the Division of Labor
Adam Smith's observation is that the division of labor seems to happen naturally. People want to concentrate on one aspect of the market. A farmer might concentrate on the quality of his crop. The delivery driver would concentrate on the efficiency of his delivery operation. These people would form an informal cooperative network. This division of labor happens naturally.
When you overemphasize competition and de-emphasize cooperation, you end up creating these megacorporations that try to internalize the entire division of labor related to the production of a specific good. If our economic theorists and socio-economic structures were to emphasized cooperation, I think we would start seeing a break up of the mega-corporations as business leaders struggled to create nimbler business structures that were better suited for cooperating dynamic, multidimensional market.
You will notice that I used the word "might" and not "must" in the above sections. Cooperation and competition are simply complementary terms. A politician who takes steps to increase competition may or may not increase competition. Since there is a monopoly in education, it is likely that the Utah Voucher proposal would increase competition. Other subsidy programs designed to spur competition (e.g. farm subsidies) appear to simply give an economic edge to those farmers with the inside connections or the legal expertise to get the subsidies. These insiders use their competitive edge to drive the other farmers out of business, reducing competition.
Neither competition nor cooperation is foundational to the free market. Freedom is the foundation. Since neither cooperation or competition are foundational, politicians and economic theorist are ill advised to create policies that treat the issues as foundational.
Politicians who are interested in seeing the free market succeed should pay attention to how their policies affect the freedom of the people and not on peripheral issues. The disappearance of competition or cooperation in a market might be an indicator of an imbalanced market. Direct political efforts to spur competition are likely to created unintended consequences.