Supporters of the current free-market economy argue that competition among producers ensures efficiency and keeps prices as low as possible. This argument sounds reasonable in theory, but in practice it delivers the kind of race-to-the-bottom economy which sidelines workers and delivers much of the productive economy into the hands of a minority. Basing economic progress on competitive behaviour driven by fear and insecurity is an archaic way of organizing society. It’s an approach that assumes no advance in morals since the middle ages. It helps explain why psychopaths and people with other personality disorders are over-represented among business leaders.
Who among entrepreneurs, established or aspiring, can take pleasure in knowing that their success is won at the expense of other people’s failure? Only people with no regard for the interests of others, and no recognition that society is bound together by the willingness to cooperate. There is no more crucial sphere for cooperation than the economy.
All of the great evolutionary leaps forward, in biology, culture and society, have come when antagonistic, competing groups have come to realize that they’d be better off cooperating with their erstwhile enemies in pursuit of common aims. Only in respect of the economy have we yet to learn this lesson. People deserve to be rewarded for excellence, but many successful business people are proud of their achievements not because they have vanquished all competitors, but because they have created something of value. They are content with having produced something that enhances many people’s lives.
Formative environment is crucial to perceptions and motivations in adult life. If people are brought up to believe that, in order to succeed, they must compete with their peers and have no conscience about those who fail, then many will carry this belief into the workplace. If, on the other hand, young people are encouraged to empathize with their peers in the playground, and this is extended into the world of work, then a new kind of economy will gradually emerge. A selfish, competitive world view is self-perpetuating. The alternative is within the reach of everyone.
An economy based on cooperation will not ensure equal outcomes but it will narrow the gap between rich and poor, and ultimately eradicate poverty. There are already many examples of people motivated by values that have nothing to do with competition. They collaborate successfully on ventures that create real wealth and add considerably to the diversity of human experience. In a better-balanced economy, the price of failure, or of narrowly losing out in the competition to bring a new product or service to the market, would not be so great. An economy comprising many more small units of production and increasingly few mega-corporates would be a safer place for more people to do business. The urge to compete is reinforced by a fear of failure, which can mean exclusion, poverty and lifelong insecurity. What kind of society thinks this is a sensible basis for economic relations?
Excerpt from Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual.