Education and social critic Alfie Kohn is an exhaustive researcher and engaging writer. I have not read all of his eleven original books, but I do highly recommend these two: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes and Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. The titles and subtitles make clear his premises about human motivation and behavior. In his first book, however, No Contest: The Case against Competition, Kohn writes (p. 9), “The more closely I have examined the topic, the more firmly I have become convinced that competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement, that the phrase healthy competition is actually a contradiction in terms.â€ To this, I must take exception.Kohn, a strong defender of intrinsic motivation, frames his critique of competitionâ€”an extrinsic motivatorâ€”as setting up an irreconcilable conflict between doing well and beating others, as focusing on competence and accomplishment vs. trying to do something better than someone else. But healthy competition, especially the economic type, requires strong focus on doing well; beating someone else in the process, if it is focused on at all, is consequence. Kohn’s understanding of economic competition, unfortunately, is laced with Marxist mythology, Galbraith’s dependence effect, and the doctrine of pure and perfect competition, so he sees competition as an unfair and arbitrary creator of desires. Even at the highest levels of athletic competition, winning is consequence of doing well. Winning for its own sake is indeed not an attractive character trait.
Other forms of competition, however, do tend to focus exclusively, or nearly so, on beating others. Competition in the animal kingdom is the extreme example where, because of the limited supply of food and territory, competition often becomes a fight-to-the-death encounter. Among humans living in a society of abundance, a different kind of fight-to-the-death desperation is sometimes seenâ€”not physical desperation as animals might face, but psychological. Because of the anxiety that many people feel, “competitiveness,â€ or a desperate need to defeat others, becomes a defensive motivator. Doing well takes a back seat. Occasionally, a highly talented and accomplished person exhibits defense-driven competitiveness, but this does not detract from the point that the source of the competitiveness is psychology and the source of the accomplishment is ability.
The one form of competition that devalues doing well and encourages beating others is that caused by government intervention into the economy. Mises points out that totalitarian states encourage people to “court the favor of those in power,â€ but this is true of any bureaucratic intrusion into the economy. Licensed professionals, because of the privileges extended to them by the government, will focus less on doing their jobs well and more on making sure the bureaucrats keep the unlicensed out of their market. Because of the restriction in supply brought about by the licensing monopoly, the consumers of that profession must now scrambleâ€”not too differently from what animals must do in their kingdomâ€”to compete with each other, that is, to try to beat others, to obtain that limited supply. The beaten ones, as in the medical market, go without.
Kohn’s book is filled with examples of bureaucratic and defensive competition, two types that I would agree are unhealthy, but he does not always identify them as such. He, of course, confuses the two with healthy, economic competition. If read with an understanding of this confusion in mind, Kohn’s book can provide a detailed analysis of the less savory forms of competition that exist in our society.
Jerry Kirkpatrick is author of In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism. Visit his blog.