Capitalism - A System of Competition?
Capitalism has often been described by as “a system of competition” by its adversaries, or a system “based on competition.” Naturally, this assertion is usually coupled with a spirited oration on how this “tooth n’ nail” competition psychologically corrupts us – pitting man against man in a “race to the bottom.”
Many of capitalism’s most vocal advocates have, themselves, imbibed this premise uncritically. They leap to a fervent defences of competition, extolling its virtues – real or perceived. In my view this is a mistake. To accept without evaluation the presupposition that capitalism is a system of competition – in contrast to other hypothetical systems of cooperation (namely socialism and communism) – is to frame the very debate itself in leftist terms and play the game on an unfairly tilted game-board.
Competition is Fierce for Government-Controlled Resources
This is not to say that those who defend competition do not raise some worthy points. For example: If not competition, then what is the alternative? Is there to be one central provider of each good and service available who gets to decide on our behalf how it is best to be produced and then allocated? Add to that, that if competition is wrong in the market, then why not in the political sphere? Surely democracy is out of the question if competition is a corrupting factor, because what do political candidates do if not compete for office? Think of the competition this generates between political parties, not to mention the ensuing competition between firms and individuals for preferential treatment from politicians and legislators, competition between lobbyists, think-tanks, and voters, to receive benefits out of the public purse. If the free and voluntary section of society is a system of competition, how much more so is government? Surely democracy is a “system of competition.” Politicians are competing for the very machinations of control in our society. For the right to pass and enforce laws which apply to everyone (whether they agree with them or not) and to force them to pay for their enforcement. They are not simply competing for market share where the winner of the competition is the one that satisfies the most demand. We can sidestep the more mundane economic arguments in favour of competition for the moment, such as the case that it increases efficiency and cheapens goods while driving innovation, as we are all familiar with them already.
Capitalism is a System of Voluntary Exchange
Nonetheless, parsing what is essentially a sociological debate – a meditation upon the effects of an economic environment upon the soul of man – in socialist terms; basing it upon left-wing premises without examining their foundation is to cede too much ground. A comical equivalent would be for a leftist responding to the clichéd assertion of the American right that “Hitler was a Socialist!” by arguing that many of his labour policies were successful in improving social conditions for the working class.
This is not to say that competition is necessarily an evil either. The problem lies in defining capitalism as “a system of competition” - in comparison to other systems which are somehow “cooperative”; that is a rhetorical ploy. Those who profess it may honestly believe it to be so, but it’s not true. Capitalism is not “a system of competition” any more than any other system. Capitalism (at least in its free-market, laissez faire ideal) is a system of the voluntary exchange of goods and services in the absence of physical coercion, theft, compulsion or fraud, predicated upon the fundamental right to own and accumulate property.
Or, for brevity: Capitalism is a system of voluntary exchange, predicated upon the right to own property.
One might even venture, therefore, that capitalism is a system of voluntary cooperation.
Granted, this definition still leaves room to debate the morality of accumulating property. Or perhaps whether the “negative” right to ownership when it comes to the rich should take precedence over the “positive” right to healthcare or education at their expense when it comes to the poor. We can even debate whether the relationship between capitalists and their employees are really free of coercion given the power disparity between the two groups. Indeed these are debates I delight in exploring further. However, there is no justification for defining capitalism as a system based upon competition.
Because Scarcity is a Fact of Life, Competition will Exist under Any System
The reason for this is that while the voluntary exchange of goods and services may give rise to a certain amount of competition, competition does not give rise to the voluntary exchange of goods and services. Scarcity does. In any situation of scarcity of resources, there is bound to be some form of competition over those resources (as well as over how those resources are allocated). To exemplify the mistake that is being made here, consider the uncontroversial statement: “The fact that things exist gives rise to motion.”; Now, if I were to conclude that because of this, “motion itself gives rise to the material world,” that would be a weird conclusion to reach. Motion is a feature of the material world, not what defines it or gives rise to it. Similarly, competition is a feature found within a capitalist economy, but it is not its defining feature, nor is it only a feature of capitalism…
If we have a system that allows voluntary exchange, some competition is bound to arise out of that, but that would happen under any system. Even if you had a completely communistic society, which was centrally planned and involved no exchange of money whatsoever, people’s time would still be limited. If you were a film maker in this society, you would probably want as many people to see your films as possible. As would every other film-maker. That would put you at least somewhat in competition with them. Does this mean that communism, too, is a system of competition? Certainly you would be competing for the only customer – the sponsorship of the state. Corruption and cronyism would surely be the result. Who gets their film made and who doesn’t? Who allocates the highly desirable job of being a film-maker over the undesirable job of being a street-sweeper or refuse collector, and how can their favour be courted? The competition will commence, but instead of being decided by the free and voluntary exchange of film-goers, investors and film-makers it will be decided by someone else, I would argue, in a rather more authoritarian fashion. (For a particularly vivid and chilling illustration of how communism substitutes market competition over customers [which is at least tied to the provision of desirable services] for the completely unmeritocratic competition over gaining favour from the corrupt power structure of the state, I refer the reader to Ayn Rand’s first novel, We The Living.)
Competition is a feature of living in a world of scarcity and would exist in any system. Socialism cannot do away with competition – nor can any other system. Therefore it is wrong, both logically and polemically, to define capitalism as “a system of competition” in contrast to socialism; let alone define communism – a system where individuals will have to compete for the favour of authorities who make decisions on their behalf – as a system of cooperation.
Scarcity Means Competition Extends Beyond the Economy
The implications of these facts reach into any circumstances of scarcity beyond the economy. For example, supposing two friends each invite me over to dinner of an evening, I might have to make a choice between their invitations which will result in one of them losing out on my company. Does this then mean that friendship is a system of competition?
We can’t see all of our friends all of the time, or even all of them at the same time. Even if we do, we are bound to have to split our attention between them. In addition to that we can only maintain so many close friendships at once, and we definitely can’t be friends with everyone. All of this means that inevitably we have to make choices. We each make decisions on who to make and maintain friendships with based upon our value judgements, conscious or unconscious. Perhaps based on how happy we feel around them, how long we have known one another, how much we have in common, how much we trust someone or how loyal they have shown themselves to be, how much they educate, enrich or enlighten us, or perhaps based upon what roles roles they allow us to fulfil in their lives. There can be countless other reasons. The fact is we decide. People who feel that they will benefit from our company, for whatever reason, will make attempts to spend time with us. We will invariably begin to make choices on who to spend time with based upon our values, schedule, and what other activities we are willing sacrifice to see them. These are basic facts of life, but they hardly make friendship a system of competition.
Similarly, on the market, our time and resources are limited. We make value-based judgements about choices of products and services to consume based upon what utility we think they will bring to us, sacrificing some options to others. Maybe we will choose a coffee shop based on which has the best tasting coffee, or maybe based on which provides the nicest atmosphere, or maybe based on which is closest, or where the customer service is best, or which is the cheapest, or which we have gone to the longest and therefore find familiar, or perhaps even based on which we think has the best ethos – for example, because they are a social enterprise that only sells fair trade produce and deliberately seeks to employ and train disadvantaged people. The fact is we decide. Each service provider believes they will benefit from our custom and will make attempts to attract us, placing an upward pressure on the quality of services and a downward pressure on price which we may correctly identify as a form of competition. Since human beings are not infallible, sometimes someone might buy a coffee that they don’t end up liking, but over the long term the competition is likely to be won by the satisfaction of customers.
Free to Choose
The miraculous wonder we miss when we focus our attention upon the competition which derives from choice is the ability to choose itself. For example, supposing two commercial events are being held on the same evening. Each perspective patron will want to choose whichever event appeals to them the most, and for whatever reasons they choose based upon what they value in an event. Now, to simply mention that these events are “in competition” would be to completely miss the crucial point that event-goers (who are in the majority compared to event-organizers) have a choice of two events which they may prefer to go to one of rather than one alone.
There is no necessity for competition implicit in the market either. If both events are in jeopardy due to a lack of patrons, then their organizers can always put their heads together and create one bigger, better event. Or they can choose distinct themes that are aimed at different audiences, or perhaps they will agree that it would be in their interests if one of them moved their event to a different night, and they could cross-promote one another. This is part of the free choice the market affords, unless the government has passed laws against it, calling it “collusion.”
The defining feature of the market, clearly, is not competition, but choice. The freedom to choose. It is only when event organizers can go to the government to force people to buy tickets, or shut down other events, or get preferential legislation passed to make it easier for them to advertise, or regulate the market so tightly that only established events-managers can survive, that we see competition become the dominant force. Coercion has entered the market which is no longer free. This is not free market capitalism but what we observe in many sectors of our society today – crony capitalism, or “neo-liberalism” as some may call it. (Unfortunately the failings of “neo-liberalism” are endlessly pinned on the market economy itself rather than the state’s nefarious influence in the market.)
It is worth mentioning that there is actually far more cooperation involved in providing people with goods and services than competition. You have to cooperate with buyers, sellers, managers, employees, suppliers, customers, advertisers, promoters, marketers, collective buyers, and so on. Leonard E. Read (1898-1983), founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, illustrated this in his most famous essay, I, Pencil, first published in 1958. In it he noted that not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make a pencil. He goes onto explain that the cedarwood is sourced from Oregon and the logs milled in California. The graphite is mined in Ceylon, mixed with clay from Mississippi, then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico to increase its strength and smoothness. The six coats of lacquer come separately from the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil. In fact, when you include those who manufacture and transport the equipment involved in these processes you cannot help but marvel at the fact that millions of people have a hand in its creation. They are working in concert, in cooperation, and as a result you can get a pencil for pennies.
To the extent that it is free, the self-interest of the producer is subordinated to the hardly antisocial end of meeting the desires of others. A producer wins the competition only by organising a vast degree of cooperation in the service of satisfying the demand of consumers. This means producing things that regular people like you and I value enough to part with their scarce resources for. To the extent the government interferes in the market, firms are enticed to compete over government contracts, subsidies, preferential legislations, and so forth. This is a corrupting factor in the market as companies no longer have to focus on serving consumers but doing whatever it takes to beguile officials. Sometimes that may well be providing the best service, but this becomes far more likely as the end user is no longer the buyer. Instead they may lobby, bribe, or bait with promises of high paying positions for officials after they leave office. In my book Universal Basic Income – For and Against I note that according to The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that aims to make government more accountable and transparent, “For each of the 5.8 billion dollars spent by America's 200 most politically active corporations between 2007 and 2012 on federal lobbying and campaign contributions they got $741 in return in kickbacks and benefits. This poses a tremendous problem because as soon as it becomes more profitable for a business to lobby the government than serve their customers then lobbying will become their top priority. This is why government is often a corrupting actor in the economy rather than a referee. The mutual benefit of politicians and big business getting in bed together often outweigh those of serving the public. These incentives drive companies to misallocate resources by making products that the general public doesn't want profitable, and products that they do unprofitable. In other words, the government has become the client of these corporations rather than their customers.” The competition has turned sour.
Those free-market advocates who extol the virtues of competition may point out that every service provider is, in one sense, actually competing with every other product that someone can possibly conceive of buying with their money, and argue that is a good thing as encourages firms to really try their best to create things that will please people in order to earn their cash and do business with them. Still, it cannot be said that capitalism is a system of competition – because competition is not the basis of the system, but choice. The freedom of consumers to choose gives rise to trial and error between competing service-providers attempting to draw a profit by catering broadly to as many consumers as possible or narrowly to meet certain niches depending upon their expertise and predilections. As human desires are infinite, there will likely always be incrementally more beneficial ways of meeting those desires, and thus infinite scope for innovation. What the market allows is for different producers to fill different niches. Buyers are able to compare the relative merits and drawbacks of competing products and vote with their cash on which they feel will better meet their needs according to their own values. Producers themselves are able to observe innovations in the marketplace and attempt to improve upon whichever products or services are already available. Customers will ultimately be the arbitrators of which models are successful and which will be weeded out the market. While there is clearly some competition in this process, overall it is a system of cooperation between buyers and sellers to reach a mutually satisfying voluntary exchange. In comparison to a centrally planned economy (or sector of an economy) where the amount of trial and error is very limited, and the state must roll out a one-size-fits-all solution scarcely tested against other possible solutions – a little competition between service producers might be worthwhile in exchange for a greater degree of autonomy and cooperative communication between service users and service providers which takes the form of supply and demand.
The beauty of the free market, when it is allowed to function, it that it is a constantly self-correcting and self-optimising system. Producers can reflect upon what is available and look for gaps in the market, or improvements upon existing services, and the public will quickly be able to provide signals of what is serving them and what is not by which variations they choose to part with their money for. Over time this leads to a general improvement in the standard of service available to them and decrease in cost which is probably why most of the products we buy are pretty decent. If someone sells a faulty watch then we have somewhere else to go for watches. If we did away with choice in the name of eliminating competition, if there was a design flaw in one watch it would have already been rolled out to every store and it would be too late. What is more if someone could think of any small way to make the watch better, more accurate, more durable, more energy efficient, the new model would probably not hit the market for fear of someone making another improvement upon it making all of those obsolete as well.
The Primary Feature of Capitalism is Choice, Not Competition
So to review, because people make choices with scarce resources and limited time, competition will be an inherent part of any economic system so long as there is scarcity. The primary feature of free market capitalism is not competition, but choice. Rather than moderate the amount of competition in an economy, state intervention will replace competition to serve customers on a voluntary basis with competition over gaining the favour of whoever is responsible for allocating resources within government. Instead of competing to serve their customers as best as they possibly can to achieve the biggest market share – firms can, will, and do, compete for government favours, and to have their products “rolled out” by the state to as many people as they can using public funds or subsidies out of the public purse. This is where the real “tooth and nail” begins.