The Corrosive Nature of Competition

E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 Small is Beautiful:  Economics as if People Mattered was aptly subtitled, for when one thinks of the discipline of Economics, one tends to think of a discipline in which people decidedly do not matter!  Rather, one thinks of the discipline as concerned with an abstract, hypothetical “world” in which the efficient use of resources and price-setting are what’s of interest.  In that hypothetical world it is held that competition is the means by which resource allocation is “best” achieved, and by which prices are set so that “excess” profits do not arise, the result being the best possible situation for consumers.

The problem with an Economics of this sort, however, is that consuming is but one role that humans play.  Because of that fact, to “lift up” competition as an unqualified “good” is to assert—like the typical television commercial—but a partial truth.  A “truth” that may very well be overshadowed by other truths of a much less positive nature.

In the hypothetical world of interest to economists, a “free market” situation within which competition occurs may produce “good” results. The problem with that fact, however, is that we humans don’t live in a hypothetical world but, rather, live in a real one—a world within which the assumptions that economists tend to make utterly lack in realism.  Thus, although competition may result in “good” results in their hypothetical world, that fact gives us no reason to believe that competition has “good” results in the real world.  For that matter, it doesn’t even give us reason to believe that competition even occurs, in its pure form, in the real world!

Insofar as competition does not occur in its pure form in the real world, one, of course, has a basis for arguing that efforts should be made to increase its presence there.  However, given that there are reasons—ones other than economic ones, that is—for arguing against competition, those other reasons must be taken into consideration before one engages in an effort to increase competition in the economy. Especially given that those “other” reasons may carry more weight than economic reasons.

My thesis here is that there are human costs associated with competition, and that they outweigh any economic benefits provided by competition (were it to occur).  This is a matter of personal judgment rather than empirical fact, of course, but I do have reasons for this judgment, which I list below.  Those reasons may or may not convince you, the reader, as to whether competition should be regarded as basically an evil (which is what I believe).  In my own mind, however, the “negatives” associated with competition are more substantial than the “positives”—especially given that many of the assumptions upon which economists’ conclusions are based not only lack in realism, but cannot be made realistic without changing humans genetically!


  • Causes one to regard others in dehumanized terms—as mere things.
  • If one regards others as mere things, one can, in good conscience, use others as means to ends that one establishes for oneself.
  • If one regards, and then treats, others as mere means, one will feel no obligations toward others.  Thus, if one learns of others in need, one will feel no obligation to provide them with any sort of assistance—and may even blame them for being in need!  If one does the latter, one will be able to refrain from providing help to others in good conscience.
  • In centering one’s life on competing with others, one easily loses sight of what it is that’s worth competing for!  One may, for example, compete with others for wealth, fame, and/or power, and then use this to acquire more and more material things—under the (tacit) assumption that this will bring one well-being, happiness.  However, because we humans have evolved with other needs that are of more importance, those who pursue wealth, etc., find that they never achieve true satisfaction.
  • One need that tends to go unfulfilled in a society in which competition assumes an important role is that for friendship.  For if others are rivals, they cannot also be friends.
  • If others are only rivals, one in effect isolates oneself from others—thereby going against one of one’s “design specifications” as a human, one’s need for interacting with others as companions.  One thereby inadvertently denies to oneself a happy life.
  • One not only denies to oneself a happy life, but a healthy one as well—for our physical selves did not become “designed,” via evolutionary forces, for the constant stress that one places on oneself by continually engaging in competition with others.
  • If one’s focus is on competing with others, one will lack an ability both to “read” others, and also to “read” cues from the environment.

One whose life is oriented to competing with others “goes against his or her nature,” and thereby never attains a satisfactory level of well-being.  One might think that realization of this fact would cause one to “wise up,” and then give up such a life.  This is not easy to do, however; for if one lives in a society—such as ours—in which competition is “held up” as a good, one easily becomes “trapped” by the society, with no easy means of escape.  As a consequence, although one may live for a number of years, one never actually “has a life”! That’s no way to live, but . . . .

If this is not bad enough, the fact that one’s life is governed by a “drive” to compete with others means that one’s world consists only of other people.  Another way of stating this is to say that a person whose life is dominated by a drive to compete fails to recognize the Larger World out there; ironically, the person is, in fact, living in that World but fails to recognize that s/he is!  And in failing to recognize that, fails to realize how one’s actions are impacting Earth System—which impacts have a “rebound” effect in that they result in, e.g., global warming, which will have implications for their lives and the lives of all others on earth.

The economists, going back to Adam Smith, who have argued in favor of competition have taken a very narrow view of life on earth.  Their intentions may have been benign, even positive; but in having a narrow view, their promotion of competition has, in balance, been of a negative nature.  One might even argue, I suppose, that the fact that we humans are on a road headed for Extinction could be blamed especially on economists, and the “religion” of competition that they have been selling the public!

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.