Claremont, CAPresident Obama has convened his “competitiveness council,” following up on the “competitiveness” theme in January’s State of the Union address.

“Competitiveness” is the buzzword of the moment. You know it’s a buzzword because people are saying “competitiveness” instead of saying other words that mean exactly the same thing and are much easier to say. If you run a news search on Google to compare recent usage rates of “competitiveness” versus “being competitive,” you’ll see what I mean. You can’t walk a block in Washington without tripping over those cherished 15 letters. Congress recently formed a Caucus for Competitiveness in Entertainment Technology, for instance.

I’d go so far as to say that “competitiveness” is the new “proactive” – the word, to paraphrase The Simpsons, that dumb people are using to sound important. Or, more precisely, it’s the word that ostensibly smart people are using to try to cover up really dumb thinking.

President Obama invokes “competitiveness” to justify why he consults high-tech CEOs for advice about job creation, even though these people have proven only that they’re good at creating the kinds of gadgets that replace human labor, and their companies have thrived in part because they don’t have to employ anyone. (Facebook has only about 2,000 employees; Twitter has 350.) These companies are a great model for how to make a few people very rich, but hardly a great model for how to generate work for the tens of millions of unemployed Americans.

Where I teach, and doubtless in other places, “competitiveness” is often called upon in the following inspirational way: “We don’t really want to do X, but our peer institutions are doing X, and of course we have to maintain our competitiveness, so we have to do X.”

I take it that people are leaning on the concept of “competitiveness” in these ways because, if you adhere to free-market logic, being competitive seems like an unquestionable virtue. At the very least, it seems like a necessity. Compete or be conquered.

But even in this benighted time, we should know better. We do know better. In the course of our everyday lives we regularly acknowledge that competitiveness is not a stand-alone virtue. It’s not enough, on its own, to justify any particular course of action.

Imagine, for instance, that your 15-year-old daughter tells you that she wants to start having sex with the guys on the football team because otherwise she won’t be competitive for the affections of said guys. No one would criticize you if, in response, you lock her in her room for a year. Or until she turns 32.

That is, you would reject your daughter’s appeal to “competitiveness” because you understand that some things aren’t worth competing for.

Or take a tougher case. Imagine that your 15-year-old daughter tells you that she is snorting crystal meth so that she can stay awake longer to spend more time working on her college applications, allowing her to be competitive with peers who are also working long hours to try to get into the same schools.

Here, the end goal – getting into a good college – evidently is desirable. But you’re probably not going to be patting Mommy’s Little Tweaker on the back for keeping up her “competitiveness.”

That is, you would reject your daughter’s program of “competitiveness” because you understand that the end does not justify all means. You know that even if something is worth competing for, it might not be worth every conceivable means of pursuit.

Our everyday judgment tells us that appealing or deferring to “competitiveness” as a stand-alone virtue is silly. It’s a way of avoiding the really important questions – What is our purpose? Is it a worthy purpose? What energies are worth devoting (or not worth devoting) to its pursuit? –and often it’s a way of justifying decisions that we know, on some level, are bad.

In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus makes a case for what we latter-day folk might call “competitiveness.” He argues that the best kind of life is one in which we seek and gain advantage over other people, however we can, because when we do that we acquire the most power and the most ability to satisfy our natural desires.

Socrates responds by telling Thrasymachus that such a life – the life of competitiveness – cannot be the best life because it is, in the end, a life of enslavement. The person who puts competition above all else becomes a slave to the competition, letting the terms of his life be dictated by what other people think is important. The person who lets “competitiveness” be his lodestar is a person who effectively gives up control over his own life.

The great paradox here, Socrates wants us to see, is that the person who appeals to competitiveness does so because he wants power – but in putting the competition above all else, he loses the most fundamental power, that of self-determination and self-mastery.

I might put a slightly different gloss on the Socratic case. People tend to use the idea of “competitiveness” because, they say, they don’t want to get “left behind.” But the kind of thinking that makes reference to “competitiveness” is the precisely the kind of thinking that is the mark of someone who is an intellectual follower – of someone who is not independent or self-governing.

The person who does things for reasons of “competitiveness” is often a good follower, but rarely a visionary leader.

The kind of thinking that these days calls itself “competitiveness,” in fact, is exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville worried about when he worried about the “tyranny of the majority” and its capacity to destroy democratic self-governance.

Tocqueville, right in this as in so many things, said that one of the major threats to self-governance in this country is the tendency of democratic people to lose both our emphasis on – and our capacity for – truly independent and innovative thought in our rush to defer to the mass. Understanding ourselves to be part of a world of vast and overwhelming scale, and understanding power to lie in the majority, we over time develop the habit of deferring to what other people are thinking and doing. We become slaves to fashion. We defer to the crowd. We doubt the worth of our independent judgments.

We become anxious citizens at best, led by the logic of competitiveness into our lower-common-denominator selves, ready not so much to take on the vast and dangerous powers of our world as to succumb to them.

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  1. Very good word study. I will remember yours among all the other reasons why it makes no sense to consult CEOs of top corporations on issues like economic growth and job creation. Good points to remember about peer pressure and self-induced slavery, too.

    If you’re going to do another word study, how about taking on “phobia” as a term of political debate? There is homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia. Very seldom do people mean these in the clinical sense. (Just yesterday I invented theodextrophobia to add to the list.)

  2. Excellent article, which goes to the question of how we can become competitive with slave economies without becoming slaves ourselves. In an competitive game, the first thing to do is ask whether the prize is worth the effort, and if its not, we must find another game.

  3. I can see why so many people succumb to the pressure from the group when everyone around you puts you down for having an independent worldview. It takes extraordinary strength of character to resist this. I’ve had to do it all my 23 years and I’m still doing it. Many people I know, my immediate family included, have told me I’m going to “end up with nothing”, “never make anything of myself”, “have no ambition”. The list goes on ad infinitum. Being that we are social in nature, many people can’t resist this their whole lives with becoming severely depressed or insane. Especially in an age like ours that values conformity so highly as well as deferral to the knowledge of “experts”.

  4. Former Pres of Gonzaga, Fr. Spitzer Sj spoke about the need for a national transformation from comparative identities to contributive identities. Long, tough battle but the first on my list to fight.

  5. Brings to mind the new federal education plan, “Race to the Top.” Because it treats children, education is an area in which our destructive ideal of competitiveness is particularly concerning.

    Just last night I was at an orientation for the high school my daughter will be going in to next year, and we were advised to think very, very carefully about which classes our students take, for if a student’s goal is straight A’s—i.e., being as competitive as possible—you don’t want him or her to rush to take a class earlier than necessary and run the risk of getting a B or worse. In this environment, the will of the child who wants to take on a challenge or is simply excited about a subject in which he or she may end up short of being top in the class is foiled. This prescription for students also devalues the notion of competency—in many skills, real life requires of us simple competency, not necessarily extraordinary achievement. (I’m alarmed at how often my daughter and her friends give up a task with the proclamation, “I suck at this!”, and worry that it’s because they’ve picked up the idea that anything short of expert is unacceptable.) Furthermore, when competitive grades become the goal, the student learns to avoid intellectual risk-taking—also known as curiosity. What kind of fool would want to be curious if it means being beaten out at learning? Learning, after all, is too important to risk to curiosity!

    Another aspect of the competitiveness implied in the program’s name is the lesson to children that they should measure their achievement by how many people they can leave below them—a lesson in abusing, not serving one’s community.

    This culture appears to me to be breeding a new kind of disrespect exhibited not by kids who arrive to the system already troubled and troublesome and who don’t pay attention, but by bright, advantaged children who do pay attention and come to see the contradictions and hypocrisy displayed by adults obsessed with competitiveness and who are constantly trying new methods of raising “performance” (always measured by grades). Educators, those who are supposed to know what they’re doing, succeed mainly in leaving the kids with the impression that they really have no idea what they’re doing and/or don’t much respect learning as inherently valuable as a project in understanding and operating in a complex world—that is, as more than a competitive playing field meant to sort out winners and losers. There’s also plenty of evidence that schools are more concerned with their own performance as institutions than in the students’ learning. The kids paying attention recognize this lack of self-respect in their teachers and simply take from it the obvious lesson. These new rebels may never find a cause, but you can’t say they don’t learn well.

  6. The closing Tocqueville reference and the comments leads one to wonder how independent and innovative thought is fostered. “Experts” have incentives to quash innovation. Those at the top of hierarchies have reason to limit independence. Brandon’s comment illustrates the difficulty in aligning value with judgments that are not aligned with the majority. It seems as though after these many years of public education, this is a poor report card.

  7. A good article Susan. As a businessman I can’t resist commenting.

    Isn’t competition more often about survival than just “power” and “following”.

    Your criticism of CEOs talent for “labor replacing gadgets” seems aimed more at corporate capitalism and the short term profit obsession than competition. On the other hand merely generating work for millions of workers does not sound like a goal unto itself either. The Soviets believed in the right to a job for everyone, whatever happened to them anyway?

    You shed some light on the competitive ideology, when applied to everyday life, may go too far and make no sense.

    In business at least it is still is a question of “compete or be conquered”. I am a partner in a private company and I have to compete every day with lower prices and new products from my competitors. If I don’t pursue the customer, respond to the market, I lose the sale. That is reality not ideology.

    Perhaps being less competitive would allow me to be more independent and self governing, it might also make me go out of business. But then I’d have more time to read Front Porch Republic.

  8. May I point out one thing that may be important in understanding why Obama chose the High Tech companies? They are all solid far-left liberal democrats.

    As far as I can tell, there is no way Obama will work with conservatives unless he is forced to by an act of congress. Check out all of the people he chooses and appoints to these committees (ie: Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships). He insulates himself and surrounds himself with the most liberal people possible in every venue.

  9. Dom, in my view, the essay was not about how “competition is bad,” or even about how some areas of life should be “competitive” (e.g. business) and other areas should not be “competitive” (e.g. “everyday life”). None of that is the point.

    The main points were 1) to examine more concretely what it is that you are competing to achieve–what will you and your neighbors and society get in the end, and 2) the means that are utilized to achieve success. What good was it for Lehman to get to the top of the mortgage securities market when it did so by abusing and destroying the mortgage market? Frankly, what good would it have been for a smaller company to even “survive” in that market? A man may need to feed his family, but surely he can do so without undermining or harming other people and the broader community. Is that ideology, or should we just break out the knives and guns now? Nature red in tooth and claw: that is perhaps reality–the reality of Hell.

    I understand the modern economy makes it difficult to even imagine the possibility of alternatives to the regime of “conquer or be conquered.” But that does not mean the possibility do not exist. Here’s a hint: the key is to allow families to build a household economy sufficient for basic needs so that the underlying fear and desperation characterizing the “conquer or be conquered [and starve]” ethic is mitigated. They will be able to minimally survive on their own strength and property. This mostly means a lot more families farming and many families micro-manufacturing. How can this happen? The first steps would be to eliminate State subsidies of large corporations (e.g. repeal/reform the Farm bill, banking regulations, limited liability, etc.) so that smaller producers are able to compete (!) on a fair field.

    A vision for change exists. The only question is whether our competitive energies are directed toward the perpetuation of the existing abusive economy or toward the creation of a renewed economy where the means of the basic survival of a family apart from wage or welfare dependence on the bureaucracies of Big Government and Big Business is extended to more Americans.

  10. Webster’s defines “to compete” as “to strive together.” This suggests the cooperative context in which creative, productive competition is virtuous. It suggests trying to IMPROVE on the performance (or to use economic terms, product or service) of another, not trying to DESTROY the opponent. Our use of the word is thereby debased, having lost the cooperative meaning of the root “com,” which means “together,” not against. The ethos of “just win, baby” makes no distinction between one little league team trying to play better than the other and the parents in the stands screaming insults at the other team or the umpire. Competitiveness without the boundaries of the greater good is debased and corrupt.

    When business becomes about “compete or be conquered”, i.e., brutal survival, that sounds like operating under something close the enslavement Ms McWilliams and Plato describe. The answer might be that necessity is the mother of invention, but you’re talking about a necessity created by humans trying to eliminate each other, not nature’s necessities. You seem to describe a system as abusive and denigrating for the winners as it is for the losers, denying both the power of independence and self-government. It’s the tyranny of the free-for-all—anarchy.

  11. A very good and timely article. At its best, “competitiveness” seems to draw on the virtues of fortitude, magnanimity, and diligence (industria). When playing a game, we expect the players to display a competitive spirit, else the game should fall apart. All too infrequently, however, is it measured with prudentia, which I take to be your point.

    You make a convincing case that the misuse of “competitiveness” makes things worse. In my judgment, the underuse of “resourcefulness” is a related problem, because there one has to deliberate about ends and the best means of achieving them. One thing that strikes me about today’s college-age generation is their lack of resourcefulness. For all their talk about being self-determining, they run into walls pretty quickly.

  12. “Competitiveness” seems an echo of or otherwise closely related to what Philippe Beneton called “instrumental rationalization” in his great (and must read for FPRers) book Equality by Default.

    Here’s how I described this concept in my review of the book for Perspectives on Political Science back in 2005: “Instrumental rationalization works from the assumption that rationality is purely instrumental—without substantive knowledge, all we can really know is that certain techniques obtain certain ends, although we have no way of judging the ends. This brings us under the sway of what is economically valued as a “good.” The quest for more of such goods and more techniques is the only end that instrumental rationalization understands. Any new technique might conceivably help to produce something valued in the future, and, in the meantime, each technical discovery counts as career-friendly evidence of scientific acumen. Armed with the excuse that another researcher, firm, or nation will pursue whatever leads they do not, specialists wash their hands of responsibility. Knowledge of technique, quite deliberately agnostic about the ends, winds up running the world.”

  13. Funny how opposites attract. The Laputan devotees of “Competitiveness” work assiduously with their fellow Laputan Priests of that noisome cult who perpetuate the walleyed notion that everyone is a winner, whose “self-esteem” should be an all-encompassing preoccupation.

    The Lemming in the second row says to the Lemming behind “hurry up, we’re gaining on the leaders”.

  14. Re: May I point out one thing that may be important in understanding why Obama chose the High Tech companies? They are all solid far-left liberal democrats.

    Democrats they may be, but no one who is engaged in making boatloads of money, and who is successful at it, is “far left”. The Far Left is quite inimical toward capitalism in any form. Can we please not caricature people who poklitics we disagree a bit with?

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