Monday, April 30, 2012

In Praise of the Competitive Spirit

I just read an article at the website Elephant entitled "When Competition Wins, Everyone Loses", and I felt compelled to respond. The author asserts that it is more important to cooperate than to compete, that we are put on the Earth of express our "uniqueness", and that, in fact, when it comes to competition v. expressing our uniqueness, we "...can have one or the other, but not both at the same time." Competition, it seems, is actually a bad thing, detrimental to human souls. It creates winners and losers, is based on the reality of scarcity of resources (this is seen as a negative attitude about the world, I suppose, rather than the truth), and is basically a negative human impulse we need to just get over already.

Obviously, I'm not writing this essay because I agree with her. While in her mind, competition and cooperation are diametrically opposed, in the real world, they are equally important, from the abstract "market" to which economists frequently refer, all the way out to the natural world in the Darwinian sense. In fact, competition is not only on equal footing with cooperation, it is actually a good thing! Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education said it best, in my opinion, when he described competition as "nothing less than striving for excellence in the service of others for self-benefit." When people push themselves personally, professionally, or creatively, the result is not a zero-sum, with one winner and one loser. The result is an expansion of what was previously dreamed as being possible. The result is progress. It is higher heights and deeper depths and entirely new frontiers! And when combined with cooperation (not instead of it), where ideas blend and merge in to something altogether new and even greater than the sum of its parts, life as we know it has the possibility to change.

When businesses compete, is the only winner the business that comes out on top? No! When businesses compete, everyone is better off. Remember, competition is nothing less than striving for excellence in the service of others for self-benefit. The customers of that business are better off; they might have better products, prices, and better service. Even people who do not become customers of that business are ultimately better off because of the ripple effect in the market economy created by innovation, higher standards of services, and competitive pricing. I don't own an iPad, but I'm better off because of its very existence because makers of eReaders like Amazon's Kindle had to compete not only with other similar readers, but with entirely new and exciting technology. When the first Kindle came out in 2007, it sold for $399. Today, even the most basic Kindle model, which is better than the original in every conceivable way, can be purchased for $79, free shipping included. In fact, I'd be better off even if I didn't own a Kindle because innovations in publishing make it possible for me to access and read untold numbers of books online for free. I can download Kindle Desktop and read "Pride and Prejudice" for free on my laptop if I want to, saving me at least a trip to the library or space on my overflowing bookshelf.

The Original Kindle

The Current Kindle

Competition benefits us our entire lives. These days many parents seem to feel that children aught to be shielded from the world of competition in order to build self esteem and spare egos. I even overheard a college professor recently say that he felt that giving his students grades was "mean". This attitude only does young people a disservice. Grades are a way to assess one's grasp of a subject and ability to apply it in meaningful ways. Pointing out areas of weakness or even failure is necessary for improvement to be made. The result of an "everyone wins because they participated" mindset is one that places no real importance on personal improvement, hard work, or perseverance. In a way, even so-called "losers" can be winners if they harness their ability to learn the valuable lessons afforded in every loss. Losing with grace, learning from our mistakes, and not tying up our identities and self-worth with winning or losing are things everyone needs to learn. Coddling egos is not compassionate, loving, or kind. Come on, do you want your kids to wind up like the kids in this SNL sketch?!

"I tried, and therefore no one should criticize me!"

It is the absence of competition, not its existence, in which the most of us lose. Take a look at the (former) Soviet Union. The ability to compete in a free market was virtually eliminated as the State took over the means of production across the board. Without competition for resources and business, it is impossible to come up with a price for anything. A price is nothing more than a signal in the market that a good or service is currently valued at a certain level. Without a pricing system based entirely on what people are actually willing to pay for something, production and consumption (supply and demand) are always lopsided. You'll have gluts (overproduction resulting in wasted resources) and shortages (think famine and people queuing up around the block to fill the car with gas), but seldom is equilibrium reached. When competition loses, everyone loses. 

Finally, back to the original article I referenced. The author makes the point that "a Brahms symphony only sounds good when all 80 people on stage are playing their own parts well", and she is absolutely right. But how did an orchestra come to be full of talented, capable musicians in the first place? They worked their butts off for years, striving for excellence in their chosen field, auditioned (competed) for the job, got the job, and now make beautiful, harmonious music together in cooperation with their fellow musicians. Even then, however, scores of passionate, talented, and ambitious musicians are ready and waiting to take any spot should one musician become complacent, stop practicing, and fall below the standards of excellence expected of the orchestra. Just as it should be.

Extra Credit:


  1. Competition is bad for the soul? What the heck is that columnist on? How can something that makes you strive to do better and be better be bad for you? I've never won anything in my life. I'm not even a very competitive person. But I still recognize that I'm better at all kinds of things because of competition.


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