November 4, 2012


At Harvard University, a famous defender of communitarianism, Michael Sandel of the Department of Government, has denounced competition and reportedly has insisted that his own kids play only non-competitive baseball. The reason? He believes that competition is too individualistic, supports a spirit of rivalry, and undermines the cooperative attitude that we should foster in ourselves.

At those times, when people are gearing up for the Olympic Games, we might as well pay some attention to Professor Sandel’s lament and ask ourselves whether competition is or is not a good thing. And, as with so many matters, it will come to light that no “one-size-fits-all” answer is available to us. Nor, however, will we find that competition is some kind of human evil that has managed to infiltrate the human situation just to corrupt us all. It will help to reflect for a moment on why some folks feel as Professor Sandel does. It comes from a view of human life that was nicely sketched by Karl Marx, namely, the belief that when humanity becomes fully mature, it will look something like a wonderful choir in which we all stand next to one another, wearing about the same outfit and harmonizing in a way that gives none of us a distinctive voice but merges all voices together into a single collective sound. It is this view that has excited the imagination of thousands of political thinkers, and it is one from which most have drawn their lesson of what is best for human beings as they try to flourish in their communities.

It has also led, tragically, to massive totalitarian experiments in which people are coerced into a single mold that does violence to their human nature in the name of a misconceived dream. A very pictorial illustration of this ideal comes to us from Communist China where, during Mao’s rule, it was customary for millions of Chinese to march through the country together, all wearing identical-looking blue pajamas. (Never mind that the fabric of these garments revealed a serious class differentiation – that could not be seen as the world witnessed the Chinese spectacle.)

Instead of this image of humanity as one big, identically populated choir, the real story is quite another matter. We are much more different from one another than we are alike, and that is not just some temporary stage but the permanent condition of our human lives. We are significantly different in our biological make-up, and our free will leads us to make different decisions as we face the diverse circumstances of our lives. Most importantly, even where we face common circumstances, we often exert different levels of attention and effort, leading to different outcomes in our diverse lives. As usual, there are symbolic ways that these basic facts are literally played out in human communities. The Olympic Games are the most visible and celebrated ways that we have come to register the spirit of competition in our lives.

This competition is not at all the disharmonizing, acrimonious, alienating and hostile affair that critics make it out to be; quite the contrary. If you watch carefully, you will notice that the bulk of the events, quite like much of competitive life, are peaceful and even friendly, but demonstrative of the fact that human living requires close attention and much effort so that we may flourish at it. It may not be for everyone, either, this spirit of competition. But where it exists, it can be a show of human beings making the effort to do their best at some task.

In fact, competition isn’t primarily a rivalry at all. That part of it may sometimes overshadow what is most important about it, namely, the mutual and harmonious effort to excel at something. Sure, the spectators and the promoters often stress the rivalry, but it would be a mistake to take that to be the essence of what is going on and what is being symbolically represented about human community life.

Competition is built into the fact of our individuality and mutual striving to make something of ourselves through the myriad of activities in which we take part. And apart from some cases of corruption – which, of course, can plague any aspect of human living – competition gives us a symbolic expression of one of life’s realities, namely, that there is no guarantee of success and that everyone needs to work hard to get ahead but can do this with mutual respect and even in friendship. Competition, of course, is also spurred on by the fact of scarcity, as many economists would argue, although that’s not sufficient for it to occur. After all, people are sometimes quite satisfied with exactly what they have and seek no more, certainly not necessarily something that is scarce (unless by ‘scarce’ is meant ‘not available at the lowest conceivable price’).

Sure, people often strive to obtain what others also want, and there may not be enough for all at a preferred price. In that case, they will need to engage in competitive bidding for it, so that someone can be selected as the winner. But this is not the most basic reason for competition, which is that people want to do well, including doing well at obtaining economic benefits, and this leads to seeking advancement as best as they can, compared to others.

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