One of the most upsetting elements of the free market is competition. Defenders of capitalism emphasize the fact that competition results in better production, finer products, lower prices, diversity, and a good deal more that is judged by them to be of benefit. Critics of the free market talk a great deal about the personal agonies of competition: the element of defeat that goes with it, the emotional concomitants of fear, anxiety, exploitation, estrangement, hostility, etc. which go hand in hand with this ingredient of the free society and market.
Now competition is surely instrumental in bringing about some of what both of these factions talk about. However, note that underlying the manner in which competition is viewed by supporters and critics of capitalism alike is a view of social life that is worth focusing on. In both cases the emphasis is on the social consequences of competition; i.e., those results that accrue to society in general, to the group! If one is concerned with the welfare of the community at large—general welfare, overall wealth, productivity in general—then, indeed, competition can be identified as giving rise to such benefits. If, however, one concentrates on the presence of hardship, agony, defeat, failure, and the accompanying psychological and spiritual experiences, then it is equally correct to point out that a competitive society will experience enough of these factors to command attention.
Both approaches to the situation fail in an important respect. Their focus of attention is society. In judging a society without any consideration of how human conduct ought to ensue, one is easily misled about the significance of competition. Those who are interested only in the successes of society will easily construe competition to be of enormous benefit to the social group. The economic results of competition will be of great importance to them, if for no other reason than because such benefits are measurable. GNP and similar concepts seem to fit into the model of what can be quantified, whereas personal agonies or victories are difficult to count up.
Those, on the other hand, who do not give a hoot about quantification but have their pulse on the private outcries of people in a society, who find the presence of personal struggle, agony, defeat, or fear in and of itself a sign of very bad times will consider competition an enemy of a culture. Aside from the poverty that inevitably falls upon some people in any culture—for it is a myth to believe that total equalization of wealth is a real possibility in any human community—these people will point to the psychological pain that is found not just in ghettos but in some of the more prosperous (but often desperate) elements of the community.
The consequences of this sort of thinking are interesting—but lamentable—to observe. Focusing on measurable social indicators can lead to schemes such as those of the Keynesians: at whatever cost necessary, simply increase the overall wealth of a nation—never mind the long range consequences to either persons or human communities. This haste to increase overall social wealth produces deficit spending and a good deal of economic intervention aimed at spurring the economy into action, on the model of taking stimulants. Of course everyone must pay, eventually—except it is usually those who had no say about the matter who will do the paying!
Focusing on the hardships that result for many from fierce competition (never mind why they suffer, whose fault it is or any such individualistic issues) is equally misleading. Those concerned with these consequences will urge that measures be taken to relieve the troubles of those who have fallen victim to competition. Antitrust laws, welfare programs, social security measures, forced insurance against medical disasters, unemployment compensation, and similar measures aimed at helping the unfortunate become the objects of crusades. While some strive for greater social wealth, others strive for greater social welfare, i.e., security.
A SIDE SHOW
Now what is wrong with all this? Well, for a start, competition is actually only a side show in a free market. True enough, as with the various events at the Olympics, it appears that people are in it for the contest. Yet what the market makes possible is only incidentally a matter of contest. More accurately it is a matter of excellence. In a free market people can excel at what they do—even if there is no one challenging them. If there are many who want to excel at some craft, profession or art, then we find competition. It is true that for some people only a contest will suffice to bring them into the field. But that is not crucial. Freedom allows those who want to work at some task to do their best without punishment; since there are many people around wanting to do similar things, competition results. But without first wanting to be in the field the competition would not ensue. Nor would the failures.
The important thing is that the failures result only because those who might not really like to engage in the productive activity get into it anyway. People do not really have to be economic successes in a capitalist world. There is no reason for someone to get involved in the hustle—he or she could stay outside, live for small pleasures, travel little or none at all. The phenomenon of "rising expectations" could be resisted, and thus failure avoided. For failure is not in taking 2d or even 300th place in the contest—it is not liking the battle in the first place. And when I say battle, I am speaking somewhat carelessly, for it does not have to be a battle—it does not have to involve wanting another to lose. It is a mistake to look upon the free market on the model of a boxing ring where there are only winners or losers (although even there we find tournaments where people take positions of first, second, third, and so forth on a long continuum between winner and loser) The free market is more like a marathon run—thousands starting, one finishing first, many right behind, some in the middle, then some more following, until we come to the end, with only a few actually dropping out of the race. Yet all of them have the choice to be part of it; because their first love is running, competition comes only as a result of learning that others like to run also.
Competition is a social phenomenon that cannot be understood without first paying attention to what sort of entities take part in it. When one learns that people compete, then a better understanding of competition may be obtained. Unfortunately competition has always had more social significance than what it really deserved. If we looked upon it as a mere consequence of free actions by individuals, neither losing nor winning would have national significance. What should, in fact, be of national significance is that competition is possible, not that it occurs. Paying much attention to national wealth and national despair can only distort one's view of what should be happening—free action. Human beings ought to be free to try their hands at what they want to produce—and if their desire is to produce what no one else wants, then this, too, ought to be something that people have the right to do. Excellence at one's craft—no matter how many others practice it—is what should be the prime object of human beings. Provided one's craft is creative instead of destructive—or idle, at least in the eyes of others—it makes little difference to a person if he wins or loses in a race. For his goal is not to defeat others but to conquer a goal, a vision of his own, no matter how many others try to travel the same path.
Viewing competition in this context, a person would not be inclined to make much of it and would refrain from trying to boost it or destroy it. It would no longer become a central issue. Excellence—not comparison—matters. And the excellence of human beings, individually (not in collectives thrown together by mere happenstance) is what should matter to a careful observer of the human scene. But then how many careful observers are left? How much easier it is to play with statistics of growth or misery, and cry for coercion when dissatisfaction with either obtains.
Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Competition".