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Essential Matter: The Paradox of Competition

1 Jun 1997

  • Author(s): Louis Emmerij

Nobody would deny that a degree of competition is positive. Healthy competition — at school, at work, in research, as well as in the economy — helps a society or an individual to progress and to remain innovative. The Latin root of the verb compete is competere, which means " to seek together".

But the intense competition in today's global era is a far cry from this old ideal. Competition has become a weapon to wipe out the adversary. It has become an ideology and an imperative, and some even speak of the "gospel" of competition (see Group of Lisbon, Limits to Competition, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

Competition in short has come to be seen as an answer to almost all economic ills. Is there a worsening unemployment problem? Then what is needed is to become more competitive. Is there a growing poverty problem in certain countries? Then what is needed is for them to become more competitive. Education and training must be geared more and more to the panacea of competition.

Competition is coming to be viewed as the only solution to the problem of globalization. The result is that the world's societies are increasingly engaged in ruthless economic battle. Reports abound with such titles as "Winning in a World Economy," and the cult of competition even has its own "scientific" instruments — namely indices of competitiveness that permit ranking countries in much the same way that the ATP classifies professional tennis players.

Competitiveness taken to such an extreme has undesirable effects, such as distortions in national economies. It also has negative social repercussions, such as growing unemployment and downward pressure on salaries and income — and hence, growing inequality.

Such an extreme system is bound to flounder. Indeed, extreme competition diminishes the degree of diversity existing in a society and contributes to social exclusion: individuals, enterprises, cities and nations that are not competitive are being marginalized and eliminated from the contest. This approach is unacceptable morally and inefficient economically. The more a system loses its variety, the more it will lose its capacity to renew itself. But above all, the ideology of competition devalues co-operation and seeking together. It wipes out solidarity, and therefore it is not surprising that this era is also witnessing heavy attacks on the welfare state.

The question could reasonably be asked: What will the declared "winner" of this competition rat race actually do after leaving everybody else in the world so far behind? But the most important weakness of this "competition fundamentalism" is that it is incapable of integrating social justice, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, political democracy and cultural diversity.

Louis Emmerij is Special Advisor to the President of the Inter-American Development Bank and a former member of the UNRISD Board. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Limits to Competition (1995), Nord-Sud: La Grenade Dégoupillée (1992), Financial Flows to Latin America, with Enrique Iglesias (1991), Science, Technology and Science Education in the Development of the South, with Abdus Salam (1989), One World or Several? (1989), and Development Policies and the Crises of the 1980s (1987).

This article has been excerpted from "Development thinking and practice: Introductory essay and policy conclusions", in Louis Emmerij (ed.), Economic and Social Development into the 21st Century, to be published in summer 1997 by Johns Hopkins University Press, Philadelphia.