The Myth of Competition 4

The Myth of Competition 4

We begin this week continuing our discussion of the Myth of Competition, the belief that competition is necessary for survival.

On Friday we saw how competition brings out vices in people, and how it is not the basic fact of life that many—especially “conservatives”—think it is. Along the way, we learned that competition is a derivative phenomenon that depends on something else in order to exist at all, namely, cooperation.

Today we will see that because cooperation is more fundamental than competition,  understanding and implementing it is the key to all aspects of social interaction, and that can cooperation can often replace competition, resulting in more satisfying working relationships and better outcomes.


The real secret is cooperation

Since competition depends on cooperation, it would be a much better life strategy to develop cooperative skills than to rely excessively on competitive skills. If you make cooperation your principal focus, as it should be, since it is more fundamental than other skills, you can still use competition as a means to an end, or as a training tool, or as a game. Competition becomes only one tool in your box of life skills, as it should be, not the guiding star of your life’s activity.

An additional benefit of being oriented mainly toward cooperation is that this orientation is more likely to promote decent behavior among people than competition. When competition becomes the dominant mode of interaction, people start to look for any way to best their opponents, because attaining their selfish goal becomes a dire necessity for them.

In highly competitive surrounding, common aims begin to fall aside. Once people begin to feel as though they are immersed in a zero-sum environment, they begin to act with increasing selfishness. If the environment started out as a cooperative one, the strains will become noticeable: as more individuals achieve their private goals through competition, the common goals of the enterprise will become harder to attain.

As the level of competitiveness rises, it takes increasing self-restraint to maintain an ethos of not treating others badly, and a focus on the common goals of the organization. The enterprise will suffer, and may even fail if some checks are not placed on rampant competitiveness. The structure of traditional hierarchical institutions makes it possible to check competition within an organization: the authority vested in each higher level has the power to curb the competition at lower levels. But surely this is locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. Wouldn’t it be more sensible, not to mention less wasteful and frustrating, to try to promote cooperation rather than to try to curb competitiveness?

Moreover, cooperative environments both demand and promote decent relations among people. They demand decent relations for the sake of the common goals. They promote decent relations by demonstrating to everyone involved that cooperation leads to greater, and more pleasurable, attainments than any single person could achieve alone.

Of course, there is no guarantee that an enterprise will succeed just because it is cooperative; but if it fails, it will not be because of internal dissension.

Cooperation can often replace competition

One might wonder whether goals attained by competition can be attained by other means. After all, why does so much of the world seem to idolize competition as the generator of all progress, all wealth, all improvement, if it isn’t the best way to attain these ends?

The answer to this question is simply that much of the world is programed to believe the Major Myths. Of course people imagine that competition is the best way to succeed in life. They can’t break the hold of centuries of Myth-telling.

Recently, however, more and more people have begun to understand the disadvantages of competition, and the unnecessary drain on energy and creativity that it generates. We are beginning to grasp the fact that competition is inherently subject to corruption, since it elevates the goal above the means, and incites self-centered motivations in all but the strongest characters. We are beginning to see that competitive activity itself—and especially mindless, unexamined competitiveness—prevents people from recognizing the negative consequences of their own competitive impulses.

Nothing illustrates this better than the world’s mad inability to stop competing for fossil fuels. The Myth of Competition has so beclouded our collective thinking that the whole world seems to take the fossil-fuel race for granted, convinced that this competition can never end until the last drop of oil, the last ounce of coal, and the last cubic inch of natural gas are gone. The world continues dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates, despite the catastrophic consequences that are certainly coming, and are already being felt around the globe.⁠ (See the many reports at the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Website: http://cdiac.ornl.gov.) And all this aided and abetted by people who generally think of themselves as prudent! This is the sort of self-deception that arises from believing uncritically in the Myths.

Clear-sighted people see that this competition is unnecessary. All that is required is to turn our efforts toward developing new, nonpolluting sources of energy. But fossil-fuel competition itself stands in the way of doing that. It has developed highly selfish motivations and goals that override all ethical thinking about means. And when governments—the only forces powerful enough to act outside the mindless groove of competition—try to stimulate innovative research into new sources of energy, the mindless competitive forces strike out in any way they can to prevent it, because they have become competitors first and foremost.

Cooperation can often achieve the same, or better, ends than competition. The cooperative and creative plan may take longer, and it may use controlled competitive structures as part of its design, but it will reach the goal humanely, and not in the manner of an over-ambitious, ethically blinded, and goal-dominated competitor.


Tomorrow we will see that competition has long been known to be inferior to cooperation in all aspects of human behavior, and we will consider how we can best resist the forces of competition in our own lives and in society.

Until tomorrow, then.


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