In any talk about the economy, or politics, or choice, competition is one of the most often used words, generally positively, always as though it is a force of nature – a sign of a free and mature community, a virtue, a necessity, and an unavoidable representation of the core of our reality.
I am not persuaded that it is any of those things.
Competition begins in infancy, as we struggle to establish our personality. At that time, adults in our world worry about the emergence of selfishness and narcissism, bullying and the expectation of immediate gratification: they try to constrain the young child’s unbridled competition, with conventions and rules and sanctions. Generally, the adults try to teach cooperation/collaboration as the preferable course of action for children.
Competition is channeled into “games” and games have certain characteristics that reflect the limits of competition. There is a playing field, and nothing off the playing field is allowed to intrude on the action on the field. There is a limited number of participants, and others cannot simply be called in from off the field. There is a single clear objective, and rules about what is allowed (or not) to reach the objective. Neither the participants nor the officials nor the spectators can change the rules or the objective of the game in mid-play, or surreptitiously play an alternate game on the field. Basically, the intention of competition in games is to exclude as many variables as possible, in order to create a simple and temporary alternative to “reality”, and ensure that there are no real consequences for what players do in this alternate reality – no one gets hurt. This is not a very useful model of real life.
Perhaps competition is a manifestation of immaturity. Perhaps we should look for less of it in life, not more.
Even so, perhaps it is an essential characteristic of nature and life. Some will say that we are born competitive. But it isn’t human nature to carry, throughout life, everything we are born with. We are born unable to control our bowel and our urinary tract.
I am not persuaded that we competition is an essential characteristic of life. It seems to me that people need to belong; they need to be in relationship, they need to cooperate.
Personally, I haven’t made any of the important decisions in my life in the context of competition. My wife didn’t win (or lose) a competition to become my wife. She and I didn’t structure a competition to choose our neighbourhood community. I didn’t choose my life’s career in the context of a competition.
Even though car manufacturers claim to be in competition, I have never chosen a car on the basis of their competition. I prefer to think that I am looking to collaborate with a manufacturer in getting the car I want. Generally, my disappointment – when I buy a car — results from the sense that the car manufacturers are paying more attention to their competion with each other than they are to their relationship with me – the customer.
And, of course, we know that some of the greatest barons of industry tried hard – in secret — to cooperate when pubic policy and law made their cooperation illegal. Perhaps public policy should harness the energy of cooperation instead of making it illegal. Perhaps corporations should build an economic model that is based on collaborating with customers, rather than competing with other corporations.
Election campaigns are now characterized as a competition among candidates. The characterization essentially removes citizens from the process: citizens become spectators – the audience that merely votes for “the winner” at the end of the campaign. The winner takes all and the spectators are left, shortly thereafter, with a sense of disappointment that there was nothing in the competition for them. What would happen if we characterized election campaigns as a collaboration among voters to discuss, debate, and resolve how to move into their collective future? What would happen if we focused – first and foremost — on public involvement, and only then considered the question of which candidate would be the best servant leader when the public had played its critical role?
Perhaps there is a very powerful social/economic/intellectual model of collaboration instead of competition. Perhaps the alternate model is just waiting to emerge. Perhaps we should turn down – way down — the rhetorical support for competition