Economic lie no. 5; competition can solve all our problems…

william, sports day

Some ideas are so central to our world view that everyone just assumes them to be fact. The domination of so called free market economics have forced quite a few of these kind of ideas into our thinking- one of them is the absolute necessity of competition.

Without competition we become flabbily inefficient, like some kind of state run farm in the old Soviet Union. Without competition we will never become the best that we can be, either as individuals or as countries. Without competition, we are told, all human endevour atrophies. All science is still born, all education is weak and pointless.

A what is more, without competition, there is no fun, no sport, no football no (Lord save us) cricket.

Be honest, at an economic level, do you think this is a closed argument? It might surprise you then to hear that there the value of competition in economics can be regarded as something of a mixed bag. Sure, it might drive down prices, but it might also drive down quality. It will ensure too that devices will lack interoperatability- each new produce will lead to the need for a new device- leading to huge waste and cost.

It might also deliver more choice for consumers (choice being another one of those current cultural holy cows) but this often leads to huge complexity, confusion and again much more waste.

What about competition pushing technology forward? We appear to be seeing unprecedented advances in computing at present. People are upgrading and renewing computers faster than ever before. Rather than buying a machine and using it for 8 years, people are renewing every 3 years, often due to the lower build quality, and cheaper parts end up breaking sooner. Again this is leading to huge wastage, not to mention the environmental impact of all those rare earth metals– which seem to be increasingly dumped in poor countries. There is now huge pressure to buy a new computer at the slightest problem, rather than fix the old one- they are cheap enough and new formats (netbooks, tablets, wrist) are made to look like essential accessories.


Competition might also be regarded as aiming to destroy the opposition. So a powerful company (say IBM) might ensure that their computer platform overcomes other ones. They are removed from the marketplace, even if the technological solutions they contained were better, more useful. The story is often told of computers that used to boot up in seconds but the company that won the competition went a different route.

Am I suggesting that competition is bad then? It would be possible to make a strong case; what is the root cause for war if not competition? Does it not create far more losers than winners? Might competition not be dragging us headlong towards the end of our civilisation because of the damage being done to our environment? But this would be every bit as simplistic and one sided as the competition-is-always-good hegemony. What I would argue for however is the urgent need to look at the holy myth of competition and expose it to a measure of healthy doubt.

Clearly competition delivers huge benefits, but at what costs? I have mentioned potential environmental costs, but there are other more human ones too. The dream of success stalks us all- our huge need for measurable, quantifiable, objective evidence of our place in the human race. But in order for some to win, many must fail. And so we will do what we can to be one of the winners, not losers. However it has never been a level playing field; some will always be able to control the game on behalf of themselves and their families/friends. At present, by almost every measure, the world is providing less chances for those who have little than previously. We are discarding countless Einsteins, Beethovens, Marie Curies every day.

You could argue that even the costs of failure (our current banking crisis) has been outsourced. Those suffering from all the adversity programmes slashing our welfare, health and education budgets were certainly not the cause of the problem- in fact they were not even in the competition.

As someone who tries to follow after Jesus, it seems rather obvious that he did not seem to regard the winning of competitions as any kind of priority. In fact he seemed to favour the opposite; turning the other cheek, the first becoming the last, the lion lying down with the lamb. I know that neo-liberal economists do not tend to use Jesus as their major source material, but nevertheless it is strange how these ideas co-exist within so called Christian cultures. Perhaps the Jesus way of doing things is not really a good way for our children to get ahead?

Which brings me to my final point- the education of our children. When I was a kid back in the increasingly distant 1970’s, competition was bad. Enlightened parents and teachers tried to emphasise non-competitive games, encouraging co-operation and the shared experience. To be honest it was a bit shambolic, not much fun and the urge to compete was so strong in most of we kids that it was pointless anyway. Since then the whole attempt to imbue education with egalitarian principles has been totally abandoned in the UK. Competition is most certainly good- the more the better it seems, particularly under our current government.

school photo

The fear we live with as parents is that we do not skew the scales as far towards our own kids as we possibly can. The pressure is on to equip them for success in each and every exam, so that they can succeed in life. There is some evidence for the truth of this. Expensive private education hot-houses kids to exam success, and privately educated kids crowd the top professions in this country, particularly the political class.

Here is the rub though- as we start to look back on lives (rather than imagine forward into the lives of our kids) what successes do we most appreciate? What gives us most pleasure, satisfaction? Which of them might be regarded as having been worthwhile- not just for ourselves but for the world we were part of? If you are like me, this has little to do with money or exam results or career. It is much more to do with family, friends, community, creativity, love, kindness.  Is it possible that competition mitigates against some of this? Is it not at least a distraction, or perhaps given too much weighting in the choices we make for both ourselves and our kids?

Competition is saving us. Competition is killing us. Both are true, and neither.

Competition is overvalued, and needs to be subordinate to grace.


One thought on “Economic lie no. 5; competition can solve all our problems…

  1. Pingback: Economic lie no.6; inequality of wealth creates incentive and effort… | this fragile tent

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