Competition: its benefits and its pitfalls

four-arenas-competition1Science fiction writer David Brin wrote recently society works best when there is competition—competition in the marketplace to make the best products at the lowest price, competition in elections to see which politician can best serve the aims of the public, competition between scientists to make new discoveries and argue for new theories, and competition between lawyers to make sure all sides of a case get a fair hearing.

That is a great ideal.  The problem is to make it work as intended.

A society such as he describes is something new in history.  Most complex civilizations in history were organized from the top down—with government monopolies, hereditary monarchs, religion (or political) dogma and no such thing as impartial law.

Jonathan Rauch in his 1992 book, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Modern Japan, noted the contrast between the USA and hierarchical Japan:

It was [John] Locke, followed by Adam Smith and others, who first built the theory of liberal social mechanisms – public processes, like voting or trading or performing experiments, in which no one gets special personal authority (no kings, no dictators, no high priests or oracles) and no one in particular gets to control the outcome.  In the liberal scheme of things, no matter who you are, your vote is just a vote, your dollar is just a dollar, and your experiment had better work when anyone else tries it.  Moreover, there is no last election, last trade, or last hypothesis.  America is John Locke’s country.

The problem is how to create the conditions in which competition works for the benefit of society.  As Brin noted, the kind of competition he described can take place only within a legal governmental framework that gives protection against fraud and force.  To say that rules and regulations are incompatible with the free market is the same as saying that referees are incompatible with basketball.

Rules and regulations do not work unless a majority are willing to obey them.  Unenforceable laws are not merely useless, they are harmful.   Laws are no substitute for a basic ethic of honesty and fair play.

I experienced competition in the good sense during my 1958-1998 career as a newspaper reporter.  My strongest competitors were my best teachers.  In trying to outdo competing reporters who were just a little bit better than I was, I became a better reporter myself.

I and the reporters I competed against tried to outdo each other, but none of us tried to sabotage or undermine the other.  We played by rules, even though these rules were implicit.  But all that was at stake was pride, reputation and (perhaps) career advancement.  If our economic survival had depended on success at all costs, no matter how it was achieved, things would have been different.


Click on Libertarianism, Creativity and Silicon Valley and Neo-Reactionaries seek to end democracy for samples of David Brin’s thinking.

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2 Responses to “Competition: its benefits and its pitfalls”

  1. Chico Says:

    Competition that leads to improvement (the “healthy” kind) is worth encouraging, but when winning comes at the expense of others, we begin to see the less than healthy aspects of competing IMO.


  2. simonandfinn Says:

    “The problem is how to create the conditions in which competition works for the benefit of society.” I agree.. and would argue that the tragedy of the commons is the major Achilles’ heel of unbridled competition.


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