There are those who believe that competition — the claw and tooth struggle between self-interested individuals — is the only thing that can save the world. Free unfettered markets are the way forward to solve all our problems— except of course those posed by free andthe unfettered markets.
Make no mistake — competition has its place and, under certain conditions, markets can be powerful instruments to achieve a narrow range of useful goals. But free and unfettered markets? No such thing. Even gatherings of pirates in 18th century had rules of commerce. Not surprisingly, Adam Smith had to warn that any gathering of three businessmen led to restraint of trade.
Why? Because competition isn’t the natural state of humanity, cooperation is. We are social creatures and we have survived and thrived not because we can compete with lions, tigers and killer whales but because we can work together to become stronger as a group than as any bunch of individual actors.
Even in sports — where the struggle between competing individuals can be exciting — most competitions are actually highly structured social events with rules of fair play. What is the worst thing you can say about a highly talented underachiever in sports? He’s not a team player; he only thinks of his own stats. In other words, if he played well with others his performance would improve.
I’m reminded of the most competitive guy I ever knew — let’s call him Jim to protect the innocent. Jim was a Vietnam Vet —a Lieutenant in the marines — who came to Canada by marrying a nice Nova Scotian gal. The marriage had long ended before I met Jim and no wonder. Jim had issues. Competitive issues.
Rumour had it that Jim left the military one night after walking out of a forward base stark naked, except for his .45, challenging any Viet Cong to take him on man to man. Drugs may have been involved. In any case, the enemy either were absent or too unnerved by Jim waving his thing around to respond. And he got sent home.
When I knew Jim,he was in charge of a long-term care facility. The mind boggles. We social service types would get together to play poker on a Thursday night. When we were at Jim’s place anything could happen. If he was winning, no problem. When he wasn’t, he would insist on changing the deck for one decorated with pornographic pictures. Quite a distraction to effective poker playing.
One night there was a huge pot on the table (must have been $30) and Jim was way behind. He went to his desk and brought out that .45 and put it on the table. Not a threat exactly but we all folded and called it a night.
My lasting memory of Jim was when we were playing a game of co-ed rec softball. A young woman had hit a drive to the gap and as she rounded second, Jim, our shortstop, shoulder checked her. If it was anyone else we might have believed it was an accident. But before the umpire could rule, the rest of us threw our gloves in the air as our captain yelled: Forfeit.
I can still see Jim on the field stupefied by the result. All he wanted was to win at any cost but instead he wound up the biggest loser. Yeah, unfettered competition. Great stuff.
But that’s ten minutes.