Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word

Paul Krugman, a defunct Keynesian, certainly isn’t the first person to decry competition. Krugman’s motive is somewhat different than the motives of others who think of competition as a dirty word, so let’s get Krugman out of the way.

Krugman’s ideal world is one in which the great socialist collective operates under the guidance and tutelage of his omniscience, which extends beyond his former discipline of economics into all aspects of human endeavor and the psychological underpinnings thereof. How else could he know, for example, that Republicans are unremittingly evil and the cause of all evil, not excluding the acts of mad men. Krugman’s problem, of course, is his heavy emotional investment in statism, which leads him to respond like Pavlov’s dog (slobbering and all) whenever anyone says an unkind or even doubtful word about the state’s wisdom or beneficence.

Enough of Krugman, as I once said, prematurely. Onward to competition, that dirty word.

Why is it dirty? First, thanks to “thinkers” of Krugman’s ilk, the word has acquired an adjective, which one hears in one’s mind even when it isn’t attached to the word by the person who uses it. The adjective is cut-throat. Cut-throat competition

refers to situations when competition results in prices that do not chronically or for extended periods of time cover costs of production, particularly fixed costs. This may arise in secularly declining or “sick” industries with high levels of excess capacity or where frequent cyclical or random demand downturns are experienced.

In other words, the term cut-throat competition has nothing to do with rapacious behavior. It is simply a picturesque description of a situation in which some firms are bound to fail, leaving survivors whose behavior should be characterized as persevering, not cut-throat. “Cut-throat” has nevertheless become ineradicably associated with “competition,” which has thereby acquired a strongly negative connotation among “average” persons, defunct Keynesians, the mainstream media, and “liberals” in general.

The other negative connotation of competition is its association with zero-sum games. In the extreme, there is gladiatorial, death-to-the-loser combat. In the somewhat less violent entertainments of the present epoch there are season-ending, winner-takes-trophy events: the Stanley Cup playoffs of ice hockey, the World Series of baseball, the Super Bowl of football, and so on, unto the Little League World Series and who knows what else.

The “average” person (Average Joe) enjoys winner-takes-trophy events and movies that employ death-to-the-loser plot devices, even as he deplores economic competition. That is so because competition as entertainment reinforces the view that competition inevitably generates losers. And yet, the competition of the arena — in its modern, non-lethal incarnations — isn’t really about the winner taking all. The winner takes a trophy and some extra moolah, but the losers — even the members of the teams that finish last and never get to post-season play — don’t lose. In fact, they earn rather nice salaries (often stupendous ones), usually for many years before their declining skills cause them to yield (gracefully or otherwise) to younger players.

Average Joe — unlike the athlete, aspiring performer, or trial lawyer — doesn’t like to think that he is in some kind of competition when he goes to work every day. But he is, even if his work doesn’t involve an explicit contest with, say, a co-worker to see who can throw a football more accurately in the face of charging defensive players, write the best computer program, serve the most customers, turn out the most readable technical manuals, and so on.

The element of competition in the workaday world is unavoidable, not only for the workers on the front lines but also for those in the back room. It is also inevitable for bosses all the way up the chain of command, and for financial backers (whose ownership shares and and loans are on the line).

The element of competition arises because of consumer sovereignty. In the final analysis, it is up to producers (workers, bosses, and business owners) to satisfy consumers — who are also producers. Every instant of every day there are changes in tastes, preferences, technologies, production methods, and other factors that determine the characteristics, quantities, and prices of goods and services that are bought and sold, and thus the rewards to those who are engaged in the production and financing of those goods and services. All of that constant change takes place in an economy that is generally growing, and some sectors of which grow even as others sink into recession or depression. Growth does not eliminate or soften competition because, when the veil of money is stripped away, growth depends heavily on the addition of resources (labor and capital of various kinds), which must be rewarded in accordance with the value of their contributions to economic output. Whether or not the economy is growing, the earnings of producers (and, therefore, their opportunities to consume) depend on their ability to satisfy consumers, who have myriad choices about how to allocate their incomes. In turn, the incomes of every economic actor, from janitor to chairman of the board to multi-billionaire shareholder, are determined by their respective contributions to consumer satisfaction.

The outcome of competition, contrary to the connotations of the word, isn’t a tally of winners and losers. Every “player” is a winner because he is rewarded, to some degree, for his efforts. The notion that there are winners and losers arises, wrongly, from the assumption that everyone is entitled to the same reward, regardless of how valuable his contribution is to others. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” is a long-discredited economic philosophy that leads to less for everyone (politicians, bureaucrats, and their favorites excepted). A low-income wage-earner may envy a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates (though that envy seems not to extend to the wage-earner’s favorite, highly paid athletes), but envy is in such ample supply that it is worthless, except when politicians decide to reward it, in the name of (cheap) compassion.

Which brings me to the political side of the story. It is the inevitability of competition — and the unwonted fear of it — that leads individuals and groups to seek shelter from it. Moreover, the general perception of competition as “bad” makes it easier for government to usurp private functions and set up in their place nearly impregnable bureaucracies. As a result of these impulses and perceptions, almost every product and service is made more costly by regulatory restrictions, licensing laws, import restrictions, tariffs, pro-union legislation, affirmative-action laws (which raise production costs by forcing employers to hire and promote second-best employees), and so on. At the same, the ability of consumers (as voters) to remove the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for such depredations is inhibited by civil-service regulations (which protect incompetent bureaucrats from more than mere changes of administration) and campaign-finance laws (which were designed by incumbents to protect their incumbencies).

All of this comes at a high cost to those Americans who must actually compete in the real economy. Average Joe doesn’t lose because of competition, he loses because so many of his fellow Americans have succeeded in insulating themselves from it. Therein lies true greed.

In summary, competition is a great thing. By rewarding invention, innovation, risk-taking, education and training, hard work, and all of the other things that contribute to economic growth. competition enables us — all of us — to enjoy a higher standard of living. And we would be much better off they we are if there were fewer individuals sitting on the sidelines, watching the competitors and taking an unearned cut of their earnings.

There’s nothing wrong with competition but the connotations it has acquired. It shouldn’t be a dirty word.