Friday, June 01, 2007

The Illusion of Competition

I was having lunch with a friend today and we were discussing problems with governments, society and our individual thinking overall. I was trying to come up with a reasonable explanation of the underlying problem with people's thinking and why these problems continue to occur. We came up with one possibility...

We brought up a philosophy of competition called Game Theory that describes how people consider their opponent's next move in order to gain more for themselves. Every game that I've played generally follows this theory in some way, hence the name. One example is that a nice player will always lose to one who's willing to take advantage of that niceness. Another is to be willing to lose a little bit to gain a lot. Yet another is to play tit-for-tat, or only strike out when attacked. Or in a win-win situation, let's say where there's a bundle of money on the table with several opponents sitting around it, do you grab all you can as fast as you can, everyone getting some, but some getting far more than others (usually the ones with the advantage of longer arms or bigger hands). Or do you try and talk the table into splitting it all evenly if you're at a disadvantage? Even then, how do you know that they will be fair in doing so?

So how does this tie into mankind's problems today? In an article I found earlier, the author took this theory a step further than just games and said that in our desire to compete, some people take a short-term approach and others take a long-term approach. Do you try to take as much as you can now, taking advantage of people's weakness or kindness, or play a strategy that will win in the end regardless of making some sacrifices? In one example, if you travel to a third-world country, you might have street merchants jump all over you trying to sell you a worthless trinket. Many tourists throw money at them just to be left alone, however, they've learned their lesson not to go down that street again. However, you go to your local Target and quality merchandise is just sitting there, no one hassles you, you get what you want and go. Which model of sales develops long-term customers? The author proceeded to broaden that concept to whole cultures and how some countries' leadership try to address the current problems or address short-term problems in order to look good now or to calm growing disorder. Whereas more successful countries tend to pass laws that have future generations well in mind regardless of the pain those laws may cause right away.

Criminals, delinquents and spoiled brats tend to have that 'take all I can', 'have fun right now' mentality whereas more well-balanced, mature folks have a more patient attitude in order to have better benefits later on.

This all seemed to make sense... Except then I had a nagging thought: This is all based on COMPETITION! People using varying strategies to get ahead of others. Some just flat out silly, some far more complex or even sinister.

So I asked my friend, who is more atheistic than religious, if he knew of any cultures that didn't value competition the same way we in capitalistic societies do. As I expected, he couldn't think of any. Neither could I. Even in the most simple villages in Africa, there is probably some form of competition to eat more of the lion, or have the most children to carry on your namesake, or to take from others just stay alive. However, we in the U.S. thrive on this idea. Capitalist nations teach that competition is the best way to foster growth, innovation, ideas and most of all: money. The "Good Life". It was this type of thinking that came up with evolution, and it's this type of thinking that views everything we see in nature as following those competitive rules. We love our sports and athletes as well as shrewd business billionaires who continually vie to be the most rich.

So I wondered about what God thought of competition. Could it be that He doesn't think much of it at all? I mean, He has His Law that we are supposed to follow. There are True Values which we are supposed to keep. Since these ideals are as built into the universe as gravity, could it be that the individuals and societies that get closest to keeping God's way of life are rewarded the most? I'm not saying God is fooled by those who act nice just to get ahead. He knows our intentions. But it's not a stretch to think that He would still reward us for good behavior to prove the point that His way works. I've heard there are many CEOs and executives who read Proverbs even though they aren't overly religious men. There's just solid truth there. Are there times where the U.S. or other nations happen upon the best way to do things by building character after a huge war, let's say, or suffering through a Great Depression, and are humbled to do things in more virtuous, courageous way? Or are we stuck with the image of Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street saying, "Greed is good. Greed works."?

Is competition as a force for improvement just an illusion? Do capitalist societies like America succeed prosper because of competition and democracy (majority rule), or because God promised Abraham a great nation and we as a nation try to keep similar versions of God's laws? My opinion is that leaving God behind for our professed gods of competition, democracy and capitalism will be the death of us.

But we're so inundated with competition in our daily lives that we naturally argue that it's necessary. Some may argue that the best athletes are so because of competition. I would agree with that in many cases. But to what purpose? Do we play sports just to win? How does a highly-competitive individual act when they lose? Would a more helpful reason to play sports be to get good exercise, build camaraderie, skills, talents and sportsmanship? Perhaps teaching and playing with less-skilled players with a patient attitude? To learn how to vent frustration properly? Even to learn how to lose with grace??

Some may argue that the best companies are the most competive, like Microsoft or Wal-Mart. However, those very same practices that got them there are slowly killing them. Companies who follow Wal-Mart's scheme underpay employees with little to no benefits, underbid suppliers because of their size and buy from suppliers in foreign countries that exploit workers and children. All while giving the customer lower prices, many times at the expense of quality. Microsoft pays well and has wonderful benefits, but I've been told that you shouldn't expect much of a home life. 70-90+ hour weeks are common-place in uber-competitive software and other white collar companies. And both destroy smaller businesses with pleasure. However, companies who cater to their employees and their families, to the customer, and deliver high quality and good customer service suffer some expenses to do so, but many times are far more successful than their competitors. CostCo vs. Sam's Club (Wal-Mart) comes to mind.

This blog entry is starting to get to excess, so I'll try to wrap up here. Basically, with our fleshly bodies being fairly self-contained and self-centered (Romans 7:23), competitive and selfish behavior seems to be natural to this world. The god of this world, Satan, probably helped make that one of the standards of behavior (think Cain and Abel), so there's definitely some truth there. However, I don't believe that's the expected behavior that God wants from us. God's way is unchanging, His Laws are perfect, His character flawless. Who can compete with that?? The answer is obvious. And when it becomes obvious that there's no competing with God's standards, surrendering to Him becomes much easier. It also makes it easier to deal with other people, I think, with a less-competitive attitude. Let God provide a job rather than competing for it. Let God feed us. Let God handle a difficult situation. Use His form of non-competitive leadership which focuses on helping others rather than worrying about our own position and power. It probably starts to make everything easier once we dump all the garbage this world has fed us in that regard and follow Him completely and whole-heartedly. 'Cuz let's face it, God could kick our butt in a game of basketball. :)


Michael said...

Good stuff, Mike.

Mark said...

God's view on competition? Two thoughts that jumped in my mind were these: God uses competition to describe our spiritual lives (running a race, fighting, etc.) on occasion. Second, the law tends to try to balance excess physical competition with Sabbath years and Years of Jubilee. If I understand those right, they both kind of reset the balance of physical wealth. So I don't really have a conclusion but there's that to chew on if you want to!

Mikeesee said...

...And chew I will. :) In the case of running a race or boxing, I believe Paul was referencing the act of training and preparing hard in the case of shadow-boxing and finishing the race in the case of running. We might associate those things with competition to help us compete, but with who are we competing to complete the race or who are we beating in boxing? I believe we'll be helping people with all our might... :)

As for the case with special years of release, I can see your point that human nature needs balances, especially in gaining wealth and possessions. But again, I see more of a balance for people working too hard to get ahead of the Joneses vs. the sluggard who won't work at all. Yes, there are some with talents that will naturally succeed and some with issues to grapple with that will hurt others, but it's the balance that God seems to be going for.

Those are my opinions, anyway. God's more than welcome to tell me I'm wrong. :)