"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Competition And The Failure Of Cooperative Idealism

A recent post on Facebook lamented the political divisiveness in the country.  We are all Americans, the writer said, and there should be no room for acrimony, combativeness, and hostility.  Lyndon Johnson said, “Let us reason together” and Rodney King pleaded “Why can’t we just get along?”, both appeals for understanding, tolerance, and good will.

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Of course Rodney King’s statement was disingenuous at best – he had a history of criminal violence before the famous incident and continued his antisocial behavior afterwards.  LBJ’s ‘reason together’, political opponents knew meant listening to a Johnson harangue and capitulating under pressure and threat.

Progressives see the competitiveness of American society as corrosive, damaging, and destructive.  American capitalism, based on competition, is a rigged system where the wealthy, educated, and privileged will always win out over the poor, the marginalized, and the ill-informed.  Those who rule Capitol Hill and Wall Street achieved their positions of power and influence by manipulating, coercing, and intimidating those less powerful and fortunate.

Conservatives see competition as fundamental to human society which has evolved from the Paleolithic to the modern age because of it.  Competition is a hardwired component of human nature, based on primitive survival instincts.  Although life-and-death survival is a thing of the past, our genetic makeup is not. We may not fight tooth-and-claw for meat, shelter, and perimeter; but we are fundamentally no different from our prehistoric ancestors.

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We cannot sit by while our domain is threatened, our livelihood challenged, or our family attacked; and we – whether individuals, families, communities, or nations - still compete for the largest share of the pie to stock up for hard times. 

Because competition is so essential to human nature, it is not surprising that it is present everywhere.  Our judicial system which is at the very heart of American society and the way that competition is mediated, is itself aggressively competitive.  “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove”, said the Denzel Washington character in Training Day.   There is no such thing as ‘the truth’ but only that version ‘proven’ by either plaintiff or defense.  Husbands and wives who have been divorced will each always believe that their claims were the valid, right and true ones; but that personal interpretation matters little. It is only how the divorce is adjudicated that counts.

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Companies sue each other as a matter of course.  Litigation is simply a cost of doing business.   Negotiation is simply the first step in adjudication, not an inherently positive good.  Opposing sides are just as predictably arrayed across the negotiating table as they are in the courtroom.  Negotiation is favored because it is a lower cost alternative to litigation, but most lawyers see it as simply one step in a long process.

Children compete on the playground, husbands and wives compete for position, authority, and rights.  College professors compete for grants, status, and advancement.  Labor unions fight ownership for increased salaries and benefits.  Ethnic and racial groups fight for a greater share of public funds, political power, or social equality.  Politicians debate, attack, defend, and promote their opinions in a no-holds-barred competition for electoral power.

Competition, however, no matter how blooded the battlefield, is as integral to the evolution of human society as it is for the animal kingdom.  Kingdoms and empires have always benefited from conquest.  The acquisition of land, wealth, resources, and labor has resulted in the growth and expansion of culture.  Without spoils, monarchs would not have the resources to build churches, libraries, public infrastructure, palaces, and monuments.   Napoleon met his defeat at Waterloo but not before he reformed the fundamental structure of French society, enabled by his autocratic power and funded by the spoils of war.  Persepolis, Athens, Rome, Mauryan India, mandarin China, and Western Europe were never content to remain within previous boundaries.  Political ambition always drove them outward.

Does competition always result in positive outcomes? Of course not.  Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were as competitive as any leaders of the Twentieth Century and had they not been defeated, the world under their leadership would have suffered.  Yet they did not prevail, because the desire for sovereignty and political hegemony was just as great in opposition.   The result of much competition is muddle as can be seen in today’s Middle East.  Sunni, Shia, Kurd are all fighting to establish their particular version of governance.  Radicals and conservatives compete for dominance and ascendancy within these conflicts.  Nations on the periphery of these internecine battles rarely sit by and watch chaos. 

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The point is that no one can predict what victory will mean.  The unrest in the Middle East has already challenged the fundamental principles of Western liberal democracy, and it is doubtful that it will continue to be the world’s prevailing political philosophy.  ISIS may indeed be defeated but the larger victory over separatism and ethnic and religious identity may be already be lost.   Yet whatever the final configuration of the region once the dust settles, lessons will have been learned, accommodations made to new world views, and the concept of ‘civilization’ altered.  Just like in the American courtroom, there is no truth but only a version of it.

All of which makes one wonder about the persistent calls for reconciliation, a dismantling of political divisions, and a more temperate approach to conflict. When has this every been a successful strategy?  The current political campaign (2016) might indeed be testy, acrimonious, and ill-tempered but either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will win the slugfest, and his or her vision of America will prevail.  We, the voters, will know exactly what we are getting because of the brutal combat in the arena.  We would never benefit from a negotiation between parties.

Why should anyone trust them to give in, capitulate, or even accommodate when there is so much to gain and lose?

The Peace Movement of the Sixties flamed, burned brightly, offered promise of a new world, but faded and finally petered out.  America is more competitive, divided, and ambitious at all levels than ever before.  The Soviet Union tried accommodation and universal equality on a large scale but failed disastrously. No movement on ‘national reconciliation’ has ever given results.  South Africa is as racially polarized as ever.  Rwanda and Burundi, their ethnic identities suppressed for decades, have not forgotten their hatred and resentment.  Both countries are at risk for more violence.

It makes no sense, therefore, to try to eliminate conflict; but to simply be better prepared for it.  ISIS is not evil as some have characterized it; but a determined political force with clearly defined goals and an absolute commitment to victory.  The West is at a disadvantage in its conflict with ISIS because it still conceives of battle within an ethnical and moral context.  Like truth, there is no such thing as absolute morality.  Force must simply be met with force.  The only outcome of conflict should be victory.

Men and women should openly compete in the gender wars.  Forced accommodation to feminist agendas through political correctness will simply keep resentments and hostilities under wraps.  The Black Lives Matter movement is very little different than Black Power in the Seventies.  Black Americans feel that there can be no negotiation or accommodation with white people, so confrontation often violent protests are necessary.  This is a good thing, not a bad one.  At the same time whites feel censured and bullied into hiding their feelings about black social dysfunction, lack of responsibility, and failure to adhere to the normative values of every successful society.  The gloves should be taken off.

America has often been criticized by Europeans as an untamed, violent, uncivilized place; but they are not looking carefully.  Out of conflict, the opposition of interest groups and the competition between countervailing forces has come economic dynamism, entrepreneurial success, and geopolitical power.  We have adhered to the laws of nature and benefitted from the struggle.
Of course some degree of socializing temperance will always be necessary.  Children – as competitive, ambitious, and violent as any adult – need to be disciplined or they will kill each other.  When battles can be won with gloves on rather than off, by all means put them on.   Competition is not one simple unique principle but a spectrum of escalation. 

Competition is a good thing, not a bad one.   Fights may not be pretty, but they are a given; and if there is any absolute  universal characteristic of human beings, it is competitive aggression. So be it.

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