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There’s No Escaping Competition

“The motives of fear and greed are what the market brings to prominence,” argues G.A. Cohen in Why Not Socialism? “One’s opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one’s success.”

Cohen further notes that these are “horrible ways of seeing other people” that are the “result of centuries of capitalist civilization.”

If only we had a different economic system where people viewed each other as brothers and sisters in a common effort rather than competitors trying to grab the largest share of the economic pie.

The competition we see in the marketplace has the important advantage of creating benefits for the rest of society and not just the competitors.

Implicitly drawing on Marx’s idea that the forces and relations of production determine the ideas people have and the way they behave, this criticism imagines that competition is a contingent feature of human interaction caused by capitalism.

But is it? Are we only competitive because capitalism makes us so?

By contrast, consider a line in my class notes for the day we start talking about competition in my Introduction to Economics course: “Competition is not a product of living in a capitalist society — it’s a product of not living in heaven.”

Despite the dreams of the socialists, competition is not going away any time soon. As long as resources are scarce and not all of our wants can be fulfilled, humans require some way of determining who will get which goods.

Competing Versions of Competition

Suppose for a moment that we want to figure out how best to allocate goods to consumers. In a market economy, we allow people to engage in competitive bidding to try to acquire the things they think are most valuable to them. But we can…

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