We have seen before how the ethical stance that underlines Boris Johnson’s outlook is firmly grounded on materialistic considerations: competition is universal and can be exploited to improve society. In the previous post I’ve exposed some theoretical weaknesses of this view, it is now time to look at the practical side and see if and when it may work or fail.
In most compartments, this view is the typical market-based, one solution for all problems capitalistic approach; as such, it suffers an obvious case of selective blindness: it relegates the effects of collaboration to a subordinate state, underestimating both its positive and negative effects. I’ve mentioned the positive effects before: collaboration allows for regimes where all players benefit, and this is frequently possible because life is not a zero-sum game. On the other hand, market regimes rely on constant competition that is artificially enforced to keep the market healthy. Antitrust and market-regulation systems are widely recognised as a necessary component of the mix: they are there to ensure that competition does not degenerate into monopolies and cartels. Why? Because competition is unstable, in natural contexts it always leads to one of two outcomes: a short war with a clear winner may end with the obliteration of all opposition; otherwise long wars will eventually lead to the emergence of new forms of collaboration between opponents. Give it enough time and competition will evolve into some form of mutual exchange, to the point that it may even become a symbiotic relationship. This mechanism is the direct consequence of the fact that new solutions generate new opportunities (another way of saying that life is not a zero-sum game) and can be seen everywhere, both in nature and human societies.
From an evolutionary point of view, this principle can be expressed in very concise terms: competition acts as a selective pressure that favours collaboration between competitors. It’s as simple as that: if you can find a way to convince your competitor to work with you instead of against you, you will get two advantages for sure (no more danger plus the result of the collaborative work) instead of a 50-50 chance to grab whatever you were competing for. The key is “finding the way”, and this requires creative problem-solving. Once more, evolutionary reasoning tells us something important: time will provide the answers. Even if pure chance is the only creative force (as for evolution by natural selection), if you allow enough time the range of problems that can be solved is unlimited, and is shown in the astonishing variety of survival strategies of all living things.
For markets, this consideration is of paramount importance: competing players in a given market will have a very concrete interest in stop fighting and start collaborating with each other. They are supposed to be rational players, so can be expected to find creative ways to do so in a fast and efficient way (while evolution does so is a slow and wasteful random exploration). Result: whatever system established the competitive market regime will rapidly get side-stepped. Really? Well, yes and no: there are some situations where competition may last for longer, and will need to be discussed separately. For now, it’s enough to note that the selective pressure towards some creative new way to overcome competition is real and always present whenever competition is important. Not convinced? Oh, please! It’s all around us: in the UK, we recently had some outrage about all the major energy companies raising they prices in parallel. What is this? A cartel-like behaviour, a form of collaboration between competitors that the current market rules can’t prevent.
More examples will follow, but the first conclusion is simple.
If you want to reap the benefits of a competitive regime you will need to actively spend energy in the preservation of competition: if you don’t, competition will always fade away and the benefits disappear.
This is a natural phenomenon, similar to the second law of thermodynamics: it is universal and inescapable.
Boris didn’t mention this principle at all, but of course it is not unrecognised: antitrust laws, controls and regulators are accepted as necessary to protect any market. Yes, but the canonical solution relies on a non-solution (in the long-term) because controlling systems generate a new sort of competition: the controllers want to catch transgressors and the market players want to cheat without getting caught. The prediction therefore is straightforward: give the system enough time and collaborative behaviours will emerge, where controllers will collaborate with the controlled/competitors, allowing in turn the latter to collaborate with their peers, effectively destroying the market while keeping it formally in place. Sounds too intricate? Maybe, but it isn’t, it’s unavoidable: the LIBOR scandal is only the latest example of this exact mechanism in action, there have been plenty occurrences in the past and there will be many more in the future.
The second conclusion is:Artificial competitive regimes (markets) can be beneficial but will always naturally degenerate. Degeneration can only be slowed down by a constant and dynamic vigilance. This invariably requires to add additional levels of controls, causing a constant rise in complexity that follows a fractal-like pattern.
I have never heard a conservative intellectual make this point, ever, but I do not wonder why. It is not surprising (the reasons are all in the conclusions above), and will be discussed in the next post. Before doing so, I need to discuss another consequence of the competitive stance shown by Boris Johnson: he implies that competition can be used to provide solutions to most (if not all) problems that politicians are expected to manage. Is this true? Maybe, but it is certainly not going to work if we follow Boris’ plans.
One example should suffice: schooling. Schools are the archetypical example of non-zero-sum systems. They work as knowledge multipliers, not knowledge shifters. Pupils learn new things, and no one needs to lose knowledge to even out the score. This consideration alone should tell us that establishing a competitive regime between pupils doesn’t make much sense, but I will show that sociological observations suggest that it would actively be detrimental.
First: gifted children usually do not fit well in schools, they have their own quirks, and intellectual development is not linear and easy to manage, it is a messy business. Deborah Orr describes this well in the Guardian, providing some descriptions that fit very well with both my personal experience (I am who I am despite the best efforts of the schooling system to normalise me) and what I know from my neuroscience studies. If you don’t believe her, go ahead and click the in-text links, her sources are all there for you to check.
Result: early competition in school will not favour the brightest, but just the ones that happen to develop the right abilities at the right time. A lottery, in other words.
But it’s worse than that: early competition will favour those that are prematurely convinced that they will succeed. People like me, always full of doubts, will be quite happy to shy away. The result is that the starting conditions (pushy and assertive parents?) and the natural inclinations (sociopath-like personalities?) will add randomness to the mix: early competition in school will favour random pupils in general, but still giving some advantages to the ungifted (more linear development) and ruthless competitors. If that’s a good result, I’m a Catholic priest.
Third conclusion: competition is not a catch-all solution. It may work in some situations, but it’s certainly deleterious in others.
But hey, it may be a good thing between adults, right? To check this, I’ll go back to Boris’ vision of a society where each individual (cornflake) competes to rise to the top; Boris doesn’t say this explicitly, but it is implied that the chances of each cornflake should depend on its abilities alone. If this were right, Boris would have a point, but this is plain wrong, so no, we ought to avoid competition (especially at early ages) and foster cohesion instead. But let’s proceed with order.
In order to allow the best to “rise to the top”, some pre-conditions must be met.
1) Each cornflake needs to want to rise to the top, roughly with the same intensity as the other competitors.
2) Each cornflake needs to believe that it will be a fair game, otherwise some people may decide not to compete, depriving society of their talents, while others will be encouraged to cheat.
3) The game should actually be fair (as Boris said).
The first condition is both false and counter-productive. Some people will not want to become massive wealth creators or to have big responsibilities, and this has nothing to do with their intelligence, but much to do with their predisposition. Nice caring people will be more likely to be happy with an ordinary life, sociopaths on the other hand are known to be eager to reach the top. Hence, a competition-based society ensures that:
a) Ruthless competitors get to the top. Nice people compete as little as possible.
b) The “Peter Principle” (incompetence rule) applies: competitors stop progressing in their career only after exceeding their level of ability.
In other words, if condition 1) was true, consequence a) will not apply, and the Peter Principle will apply everywhere: most job positions will end up being occupied by people who are not able to handle them. How this is good for society is hard to see. Luckily, condition 1) is false, so both a) and b) apply, creating the reality we all see: the higher the rank, the more likely it is that the rank-holder is a ruthless competitor with little or no competence for the role. I don’t think I need to convince anyone that this is a valid general rule. In fact, I believe that society sort-of-works specifically because plenty of people are not driven by materialistic, boundless ambition, and are happy to do their jobs well, even if their boss is an unworthy individual.
The second condition is only false (would be a good thing if it were true). Not sure? Remember what Russell Brand had to say? His main point is clear and simple: the British working class knows/believes that the race is rigged, they do not believe that playing by the rules will pay out. Being good at school, voting at the elections, being a good citizen are all things that young generations recognise as useful only if one starts already from a solid platform. And who can say they are wrong? After all, house prices are rocketing again, and if you want a University education, thanks to the uninhibited lies of the politicians (Lib Dems, I’m looking at you), not-wealthy students will have a mortgage even before having a job, where is the hope in that?
Therefore also the third condition is false, because of raising education costs, and because of the raising inequality, people who start from the top are clearly advantaged, the evidence is everywhere.
Fourth Conclusion: universal and unconstrained ambition is a misplaced utopia. It is a utopia because it is not true and never will be: lots of people are not competitive, others have constrained ambition and can happily stop climbing. It is misplaced because if it were true our world would be worse: the Peter Principle would apply at all levels, maximising incompetence on a global scale.
Overall, Boris’ position looks bankrupt: it doesn’t work in theory, it doesn’t work in practice and shows a very convenient type of selective blindness. In the next post I will conclude this discussion, showing how the errors I’ve exposed are in fact self-serving errors (a class of cognitive attractors) and preparing the path for analysing the Labour outlook with the same kind of (ferocious?) ethical empiricism.