I’m beginning to ask myself more and more frequently, “What use is competition? Does it really serve any good purpose?”
I’ve been going about this question two ways: asking myself and reflecting on it in a subjective manner tied to all of the experience and knowledge I have gained and also by reading on the topic and looking, searching, and questioning whatever I read.
So far, nothing. I cannot currently see a legitimate use.
In fact, I think the biggest revolution in history may come when humans decide collectively that it isn’t a good at all, but something to be overcome and rejected.
I’ve asked several classes worth of my economics students what would happen if we gave everyone a basic income and no one had to work for a living. They all initially said that people would have no incentive to work and that nothing would get done.
This took me down the path of incentives, which I currently view as possibly the biggest lie in economics and our modern world in general. The belief that people must have incentives to produce anything is simply not true. I can point you to research on motivation. I can explain the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. I can point to the research on creativity and the connection between rewards and complex tasks.
But I find it easier to reflect on the individuals in our world like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Jonas Salk, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Claude Shannon, and the list goes on. Or consider revolutionaries, who often suffer through years of violence and discord for a larger purpose that can ultimately bring great satisfaction and meaning to their lives and the lives of others.
Scientists, philosophers, computer programmers, writers, and everyone else that produces something new and novel that requires hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work, dedication, teamwork, and toil simply do not do it for the incentives and external rewards.
Let’s take one very simple example. Name one person involved in creating the internet. I’ll wait. I’m guessing the majority of people cannot. That’s because it was invented as a research and government project to help with communications. It simply let them get on with their work better. On different note, “Fleming's accidental discovery and isolation of penicillin in September 1928 marked the start of modern antibiotics”. Many important discoveries and inventions have happened in exactly these ways: to make our already meaningful work easier or as happy accidents.
Creation and production, especially of complex, world changing ideas, is most often its own reward or done for altruistic purposes (see the revolutionary reference above). Many of the people who have invented scientific breakthroughs have not been the ones to make billions on the ideas. Scientists often toil in somewhat obscurity with the help of basic research grant money and then have to turn over that research and breakthrough to the university they work at, the government that employs them, or a major corporation who can then turn the ideas into profitable products. The creation itself is no product of huge incentives.
On a personal note, I cannot remember the last time I did something for money. Granted, I have a very fortunate life and have been lucky never to have been truly hungry or wanting. However, that only goes to help make my point. Given a life where food, health, and education are not the primary aims needing to be met, I have been completely free to pursue challenges, learning, and development for their own sake. I now work essentially only for whatever growth opportunities a job or task presents with the ultimate goal of being able to give more back to society and world through that process.
This is no coincidence. “A large number of studies have confirmed that humans across cultures have a need for autonomy, competence, relatedness, security, and self-esteem”. These are basic needs that we will search out as humans without the need for external incentives. It is because my needs for security, autonomy, relatedness, and self-esteem have been met that the drive for competence (i.e. growth, learning, development, mastery) can flourish.
So personal reflection and my own knowledge gained through extensive study of human motivation, incentives, rewards, creativity, and complex tasks do not account for our love of competition.
Instead of reflection, maybe specifically hunting for an answer to these questions would be more fruitful. Maybe there are research articles, blogs, magazines, or books that can help me out.
Not so much.
While a Google search for “why is competition good” turns up 210,000,000 results, the first page contains mostly business and education articles with titles like 20 Proven Reasons Why Competition Is Good | Business Gross and Debate: Is Competition good for kids? - Ineos. A quick read through these articles shows very little critical thinking and almost no reference to any of the literature I hinted at above.
For instance, the first article above has “proven” examples of how competition is good such as these gems:
2. Innovation Is Fostered
That is the entire extent of the article’s explanation on these “proven” reasons. As you might guess from the reflection section, all of these can be done without competition. The other reasons fall into the same bucket. A quippy heading and one paragraph of explanation without any mention of evidence.
Obviously, a general Google search and survey of the first page isn’t the best way to go about this. The same search on Google Scholar, which comprises research from academics in the form of journal articles and books, returns less enthusiasm on the benefit of competition.
For example, one book on the link between competition and the common good returned the following,
In The Darwin Economy, Robert Frank predicts that within the next century Charles Darwin will unseat Adam Smith as the intellectual founder of economics. The reason, Frank argues, is that Darwin’s understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith’s. Far from creating a perfect world, economic competition often leads to “arms races,” encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting. The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. That’s a bold claim, Frank concedes, but it follows directly from logic and evidence that most people already accept.
A journal article on the link between competition and innovation returned this,
The relation between the intensity of competition and R&D investment has received a lot of attention, both in the theoretical and in the empirical literature. Nevertheless, no consensus on the sign of the effect of competition on innovation has emerged. This survey of the literature identifies sources of confusion in the theoretical debate.
So I am unconvinced by anything I am currently reading or finding. That search will continue until I’m fully satisfied, but I don’t foresee any plausible evidence turning up at this point.
All of this brings us up to goal attainment and the connection that is becoming more and more clear to me as I search for answers to these questions.
If you read up on the human condition and research on overall well-being among humans, a pattern will emerge that paints us as goal-seeking entities. Our brains and bodies are basically set up to allow us to satisfy desires and goals through our actions.
Alfie Kohn in his book No Contest, an extensive review of competition and its lack of benefits, settles on defining competition as “mutually exclusive goal attainment”. This is important to understand relative to the other two options, which are independent goal attainment and cooperative goal attainment in which one is dependent on others to attain a goal.
This definition means that if I attain a goal, another individual is not capable of attaining that same goal. Most sport competitions are set up in this manner. If I win a tennis match, then my competitor is, by the nature of the event, not capable of also winning the match. Our goals are mutually exclusive.
What I take away from this connection is a dramatic reevaluation of goals. This separation of various ways in which to achieve goals does not tell us which goals are valuable or worthwhile. We can achieve goals in a mutually exclusive manner, an independent manner, or dependent manner (cooperation), but this doesn’t tell us whether those goals should be pursued.
But recognizing these different ways of goal attainment immediately begs the question, “Why pursue competitive goals?” If they are mutually exclusive, why not simply choose goals that can be achieved independently or through cooperation?
Many will often fall back and rely on the simple answer, “Competition makes us better. It brings out our best.” This is both an uncritical answer and at the same time shows a shallow and superficial way of thinking about these questions.
Makes us better how, exactly?
If we are talking about athleticism, which is probably the first thought related to betterment through competition, then we can point out that we can all be more athletic (better) without resorting to mutually exclusive goals. If I want run faster, that does not preclude your doing so. If I want to be stronger and lift more weight, that does not preclude your doing so. Those are independent goals, not competitive goals.
If we are talking about intellect and knowledge acquisition in an educational setting, which is probably the second thought that springs to mind with relation to betterment through competition, we run into the same problem. My becoming smarter, more knowledgeable, or more creative does not prevent you from becoming so either.
What is mutually exclusive is any kind of ranking system of who is smartest or who is most knowledgeable. We can set up an education system (we have such a one currently) that decides who is “best” in class through testing and then rank students from one to “n” in order to screen them. My being first in class is then mutually exclusive of your being first in class. This is a different goal than gaining more knowledge or skill, though, and it is very important to recognize that difference.
So what goals are worth attaining? What does this all point to?
If you read my writing with any regularity you can probably guess.
Goals that benefit yourself and others while not harming anyone intentionally or with any foreseeableness, at least not in a major way, are most worthwhile.
Some of these goals might include hedonistic pleasure, novel experiences, deep connections to others, creative contributions to society through work and the pursuit of mastery, searching for personal meaning and life purpose, flow-state experiences, and a sense of contentedness and life satisfaction.
None of these require competition. All of these can be attained through independent or cooperative means. Examine your goals carefully. Reevaluate if necessary.
I’d like to end with one very clear point on worthwhile goals. Almost all of the truly world changing goals and many “everyday” altruistic goals aimed at bettering others’ lives will necessitate cooperation, not competitive or independent work.
As a very simple example, let’s take my own writing, which largely aims to teach and share knowledge that I feel is valuable to making the world better by increasing everyone’s well-being.
For many, many years, I have written independently. However, as I mature and relinquish this sense self-sufficiency in my writing and work, I am able to realize that writing an article is different goal from writing the best article possible to help the most number of people. In order to do that, I need to cooperate with others.
I simply cannot write the best article possible alone.
I depend on the help of others in the form of editing, revisions, encouragements and injections of ideas and perspectives new and different from my own that often illuminate obvious counterpoints or objections to my thoughts. By cooperating, the most obvious holes and gaps are plugged and any thesis I maintain is made stronger.
This same point about the benefits of cooperation over competition holds true for any worthwhile goal I can think of, which is the central point of this article. In Matt Ridley’s words, “Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty”.