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The Virtue of Competition

September 13, 2000

At Harvard University, a famous defender of communitarianism, Michael
Sandel of the Department of Government, has denounced competition and
is supposed to have insisted that his own kids play noncompetitive
baseball.

The reason? He believes that competition is too
individualistic, supports a spirit of rivalry and undermines the
cooperative attitude that we should foster in ourselves.

At this time, when people are once again gearing up for the Olympic
Games, we might as well pay some attention to Professor Sandel's lament
and ask ourselves whether competition is or is not a good thing. And
as with so many matters, it will come to light that no "one size fits
all" answer is available to us. Nor, however, will we find that
competition is some kind of human evil that has somehow managed to
infiltrate the human situation so as to corrupt us all.

It will help to reflect for a moment on why some folks feel like
Professor Sandel. It comes from a view of human life that was nicely
sketched by Karl Marx, namely, the belief that when humanity becomes
fully mature, it will look something like a wonderful choir in which we
all stand next to one another, wearing about the same outfit and
harmonizing in a way that gives none of us a distinctive voice but
merges all voices together into a single collective sound.

It is this
view that has excited the imagination of thousands of political
thinkers and it is one from which most have drawn their lesson of what
is best for human beings as they try to flourish in their communities.
It has also lead, tragically, to massive totalitarian experiments in
which people are coerced into a single mold that does violence to their
human nature in the name of a misconceived dream.

A very pictorial illustration of this ideal comes to us from Communist
China where, during Mao's rule, it is was customary for millions of
Chinese to march through the country together, all wearing identical
looking blue pajamas. (Never mind that the fabric of which these
garments were made revealed a serious class differentiation -- it could
not be seen as the world witnessed the Chinese spectacle.)

Instead of this image of humanity as one big, identically populated
choir, the real story is very different. We are much more different
from one another than alike. This is not some temporary stage
but the permanent condition of our human lives. We are not only
significantly different in our biological make-up but our free will
leads us to make different decisions as we face the diverse
circumstances of our lives.

And most importantly, even where we face
common circumstances, we often exert different levels of attention and
effort, leading to different outcomes in our diverse lives.

As usual, there are symbolic ways that these basic facts are literally
played out in human communities and the Olympic Games are the most
visible and celebrated ways that we have come to register the spirit of
competition in our lives. This competition is not at all the
disharmonizing, acrimonious, alienating and hostile affair that critics
make it out to be; quite the contrary.

If you watch carefully you will
notice that the bulk of the Olympic events, quite like much of competitive
life, are peaceful and even friendly, but demonstrative of the fact
that human living requires close attention and much effort so as that
we may flourish at it. It may not be for everyone, either, this spirit
of competition. But where it exists, it can be a show of human beings
making the effort to do their best at some task.

In fact, competition isn't primarily rivalry at all. That part of it
is may sometimes overshadow what is most important about it, namely,
the mutual and harmonious effort to excel at something. Sure, the
spectators and the promoters often stress the rivalry but it would be a
mistake to take that to be the essence of what is going on and what is
being symbolically represented about human community life.

Competition is built into the fact of our individuality and mutual
striving to make something of ourselves in the myriad of activities in
which we take part. And apart from some cases of corruption--which,
of course, can plague any aspect of human living--competition gives
us a symbolic expression of one of life's realities, namely, that there
is no guarantee of success and that everyone needs to work hard to get
ahead but can do this with mutual respect and even in friendship.


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