No Contest: THE CASE AGAINST COMPETITION by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 196 pp.)
Competition lies near the heart of American civilization. Our economic system is descended from Adam Smith’s market with its free competition. In the political realm, Madisonian factions contend with one another. And the closest thing we now have to a national religious event--the Super Bowl--is a contest between opposing groups of brawny and violent men to see who shall prevail.
Now comes “No Contest” to challenge the great god, competition. This iconoclastic work is powerful and valuable. It also, however, weakens itself and diminishes its value by its insistence on total victory over the cult of competition.
Alfie Kohn subtitles his book “The Case Against Competition,” and he argues his case clearly and systematically.
To counter the idea that competition is an inevitable part of human nature, he presents studies that show how competitiveness is learned and that cooperation is at least as integral to human nature. Our society assiduously labors to inculcate the competitive inclination it then describes as inevitable. In our first institution, the schools, the name for cooperation is “cheating.”
What about the idea that competition makes people work better? The social scientific literature, says Kohn, refutes this proposition. Competition within an organization can prevent cooperation, ultimately impeding everyone’s performance. If you take a bunch of kids and divide them into two groups to make collages, telling only one of the two groups that they are competing for prizes, the collages made by the competitors prove less creative than those of the other group.
People do their best work when they find the work intrinsically rewarding, but competition focuses attention on the extrinsic reward of victory.
The relationship between competition and “character building,” Kohn also argues, is not what our Vince Lombardian culture likes to think. “We compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and, finally, to compensate for low self-esteem.” But competition doesn’t really scratch the itch; it actually impairs the development of solid self-esteem, not only for the many losers but even for the winners, for competition fosters anxiety and guilt.
Competition is presented here as an addiction, a “strategy” to which we return again and again, even though it fails. And it is a contagious disease, for studies show that, when forced to deal with competitive people, cooperative people emulate them.
Kohn’s assault on the ethic of competition is superbly researched, lucidly written and delineated with admirable clarity.
His undertaking is also an important one. Since competition lies near the heart of our culture, the pathologies of competition are indeed quite fundamental to the problems of American society. As Kohn shows, the strategy of trying “to feel better by having the next person feel worse” does interfere with the building of community. Competition fosters selfishness and hinders empathy. Its focus on extrinsic factors makes us product-oriented, alienated from our inner experience and prone to materialism.
In choosing competition, Kohn has chosen wisely for his ultimate purpose: a radical critique of American society.
But he would be more helpful if his radicalism did not mean one-sidedness. Can nothing good be said of competition? Not in “No Contest.” Kohn’s demand for the unconditional surrender of the competitive ethic not only contradicts the spirit of his explicit message, it also makes his case less persuasive.
Is competition invariably the enemy of good performance? Kohn’s somewhat muddled critique of the market economy concedes none of its virtues. Has he no experience of non-competitive markets? There’s one company where I live that, when you call them, you know they’ll put you on hold interminably: the local telephone company, which has no competitors.
“Healthy competition,” Kohn says, is a contradiction in terms. “Any activity whose goal is victory cannot be play,” we’re told. The competitor takes no pleasure save in winning, and this preoccupation makes competition the enemy of moral concern. Good sportsmanship he dismisses as putting on a false face.
My own experience contradicts this dismissive view. Kohn is describing competition in its pathologically excessive form. For many of us, the pleasure of the contest makes the outcome unimportant. It is meeting the challenge, not beating the other guy, that lifts the spirit. Games do not just socialize for the lust to win; they also teach the idea of impartial rules and fair play.
Occasionally, Kohn’s striving for victory in his argument muddies his usual clarity of thought. The definition of competition slips around to suit momentary purposes; arguments to fault competition could be applied as readily to other forms of striving that Kohn values.
More important, there is a dangerous naivete in Kohn’s attitude toward the pathologies he uncovers. Implicit in his analysis is the idea that if we could get rid of competition, we could enter paradise.
Of course, in a society based on the competitive ethic, whatever is evil in that society will be intimately connected with competition. But this does not mean that getting rid of competition gets rid of evil. Our pluralist/competitive kind of politics brings its own kind of corruption. But the alternative is not likely to be the “cooperative conflict” that Kohn yearns for. The more likely alternative to the right to compete seems to be the loss of rights altogether.
The human condition is more tragic than a simple struggle of good against evil.
Even the pathological aspects of competition need to be seen in a context. Psychopathology is generally a form of adaptation. In an ideal world, any admixture of competitiveness in our character might be wholly negative. But our world is not ideal.
Just as the sickle-cell trait has adaptive value in malarial climates, so also in the environment in which civilized peoples have been compelled to survive has a competitive orientation been a necessity. The anarchy that obtains among civilized society has made intersocietal competition inevitable, making a warrior spirit a requirement for social survival.
Thus, in cultures throughout history and all over the world, we find a warrior ethic--part of whose “necessary pathology” is competitiveness.
But this view leads finally to the reason why Kohn’s contribution, even if flawed, is ultimately so timely and valuable. In an era where an uncontrolled arms competition is leading us toward a contest in which all would lose everything, it behooves us to peer deeply into the pathologies of our competitive spirit.