Have you ever tried to break a bundle of sticks? One stick on its own can break easily, but bundled together, they become almost impossible to break. This same resilience can be found when we acknowledge we are social creatures who are reliant on each other and benefit from cooperation.
Despite this, we have largely swallowed the rhetoric that competition is good or even a natural state.
Competition can be positive if used as a form of motivation or a challenge to achieve a goal, as long as this is not at the expense of others. More often than not it results in people being diminished in some way; for example lives being lost in wars, physical injuries as athletes push themselves to extremes and psychological stress from long work hours.
When winning or making money is the sole goal, unethical decisions also become more justifiable. Low wages and poor working conditions can be justified if profit is all that matters.
Adam Smith (1723-1790), who is often credited with providing the underpinning of modern capitalism, wrote: “It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Competition, he argued, is the necessary regulator because a consumer can (and will) simply go to a competitor to buy a better or cheaper product.
The problem with this is that it distorts the real or invisible costs in making a product such as the environmental impacts which are borne by everyone. Nor does it reflect the social goods that we might desire as a society. Breastfeeding, for example, does not contribute to the GDP of a country and yet we know the health outcomes are invaluable. On the other hand, car accidents are seen as positive to GDP and markets as they create jobs for funeral directors, hospital staff and car repairers.
Supporters of competition as a natural state often look to the natural world for evidence and largely draw on Darwin’s theory of natural selection. However, there are many examples where this is not the case.
A study published in Current Biology in 2008 discussed how a ‘look out sentry’ for a group of southern African birds – pied babblers (pictured) – informs the group of its predator’s presence by calling out a distinctive ‘watchman’s song’. The researcher concluded: “The unselfish behaviour of the sentry was rewarded further down the line by the improved survival of individuals, which in turn leads to a larger group size. This increases the sentinel’s chances of survival when the group is under attack or having to repel rivals from the territory. These exciting results are a great example of true cooperation. It’s a win-win scenario!”
The fundamental tenet of the Christian faith – “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself” – assumes a model of relationships and community. This idea is further underscored by the actions of the early church: “… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them.” (Acts 4:32-35)
In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus says: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
The competitive pursuit of wealth in which others are demeaned creates a lose/lose scenario. It not only diminishes the loser’s humanity but those pursuing wealth as well.
Sociologist at the University of London, William Davies, writes about the limits of modern capitalism in his latest book The Limits of Neoliberalism. Davies states: “For several years, we have operated with a cultural and moral worldview which finds value only in ‘winners’. Our cities must be ‘world-leading’ to matter. Universities must be ‘excellent’, or else they dwindle. This is a philosophy which condemns the majority of spaces, people and organisations to the status of ‘losers’.”
Davies concludes that only once we think outside this competitive world view can we, “consider how else to find value in things, other than their being ‘better’ than something else.”
The solutions to the issues we face as a society now rely on us realising we have to cooperate. Climate change cannot be solved by one country alone, but by countries working together through international processes such as the United Nations.
Solutions to global poverty through ensuring developing countries are not cheated out of their tax revenue; relying on intergovernmental agreements and forums such as the G20.
Stopping the distribution of images of child sexual abuse requires the cooperation of law enforcement as well as companies such as PayPal, VISA, Facebook and Google.
Thankfully efforts are being put into these areas. The question is how far will we go as a society before we recognise that we are called to love rather than compete?