Thursday, 20 January 2011

Anti-competitive practices

Das Ungeheuer
How many times do I hear it said that competition has just got to be a good thing? We need to be more competitive and raise standards they say. Competition must be introduced in the health service and education. Doing things just because they need doing is anti-competitive. How long before doing your own housework or giving to Oxfam is outlawed as anti-competitive – denying other people the opportunity to make money cleaning your house and feeding the poor? In business, competition is how you ensure that you get the best.

I can’t think of any other area of life where this would be considered a sensible way to get the best out of people, except maybe sports. In an art class or at a party or even in an office you wouldn’t expect the best results from the most aggressive, controlling, ruthless person there – quite the opposite. (If materials were scarce they might be the only one to produce anything at all, but materials are not scarce – no matter what they tell you. It’s just that some people – the most aggressive, controlling, ruthless ones, hog it all and force the rest of us to squabble over what’s left.)

It’s always assumed that the winners must, ipso facto, be the best. It’s an equation that seldom gets questioned and one of the basic tenets of Free Market Fundamentalism. But it can’t be true. People have different talents. There are all sorts of expertise out there – in my field there are plant propagators, plant breeders, garden designers, gardeners, pest and disease experts, various technologists, writers and so on and so forth. Each has various areas of specialist knowledge – some scientific, some artistic, some commercial, some practical. There are also character traits and outlooks appropriate to their roles – patience, attention to detail, creativity, physical fitness, love of nature and so on, and yet to compete successfully in the market the gardener must be preoccupied chiefly with management, money and publicity. Materials will need to be as cheap as possible. Labour must be as unskilled and low paid as possible. The ‘Products’ ideally should be as gaudy and short-lived as possible so that the customer comes back for more.
In my experience the modern commercial horticultural business is often run by rich retired business people who think they know about plants. (Sometimes they employ actual gardeners but play down their role and pay them very little.) Highly competitive people typically believe they are more knowledgeable than anyone else on their staff but have no real idea of what it means to be an expert in anything (except making money). It's almost impossible to convince them otherwise. Their self-belief is unassailable.
The characteristics that go to make up an expert nurseryman are not the same as those that go to make up a commercially successful nursery owner. In my experience there is very little overlap. People who really care about plants are generally not ruthless careerists. And yet it will be the latter that ends up running the garden centre and putting the real gardeners out of business. In the free market you can be the very best gardener in the world with a generous mix of the qualities mentioned above, but unless you are a good competitor you will get nowhere. On the other hand you can be a good competitor and a mediocre gardener and do very well indeed. (The same applies in almost any area of commerce. I just happen to know a bit about horticulture.)
Being the winner, in practice, is not at all to do with being the best man, but with making the other man the loser.
How then does competition lead to higher standards?

There was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy some while back where Christina Yang (who is proud to tell everyone that she is highly competitive) says that limiting the length of doctors’ shifts is wrong because it favours the weak. It doesn’t. It allows doctors who are in every other way excellent (or possibly better) to work. The requirement to be able to work twenty hours straight is an artificial criterion caused by bad management (like the artificial scarcity mentioned above) that trumps all other qualities. It doesn't matter how good you are - if you can't stay awake you are out. Who knows, perhaps Christina Yang is not the best doctor. Perhaps she is only the best of those that can function without sleep.

Sport is held up as the paradigm of healthy competition. Sport is all about winning after all. Here it is truer than anywhere else that the one who wins is the best. The winner of the gold medal for the one hundred metres sprint at the Olympics really is the best sprinter in the world, isn’t he? Well no. For a start he’s only the best of those who could afford to take the time off to go through the training regime – not a trivial consideration in very poor countries. So in fact he’s only the fastest of the rich kids, which doesn’t sound quite so impressive.
But even beyond that, sheer physical prowess is not the only thing. There’s a lot of psychology involved. A weaker athlete might win by intimidation or bluffing. This may be more of an issue in other sports and games. A weaker chess player can make a stronger one concede defeat by manipulation. Ok, it’s just a game. Sports are entered into voluntarily, unlike the market, which is most emphatically not ‘just a game’. Everyone must take part or starve – a fact many businessmen seem to forget.
In business almost all the success is down to bluffing and manipulation, marketing, pricing and power, and only tangentially about the sheer quality of the goods and services - assuming the customer is well-informed enough to know the difference (more about that another time.)
Competition therefore favours entirely spurious qualities and ignores the real – it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences again.

A highly developed competitive spirit is supposed to be a sign of strength. Women are attracted to it in men apparently. I just wonder though why those men seem to have so much to prove. You see them sometimes when you’re out driving. You’re doing the speed limit (or if you’re honest, somewhat more) and yet this guy’s still got his nose up your arse, trying to get you to go faster. Or you can watch him tailgating the guy in front – his brake lights flashing on and off. What’s he trying to prove? Does he think he looks cool? Does he think we’re all going ‘Wow! Now there’s a Real Man.’ Maybe he’s just mad. Maybe (giving him the benefit of the doubt) it’s an emergency. Then you see him overtake on a bend and you know, if it wasn’t an emergency before, it very soon will be. To me a highly developed competitive spirit is a sign of inadequacy. (There are also those city gents who drive their Jags everywhere at forty mph – presumably to let the rest of us know they’ve arrived. Either way they seem overly preoccupied with impressing the rest of us. Or maybe they're just very old.)
The free market is like a road system without speed limits or traffic lights or roundabouts.
Most people consider themselves to be above average drivers.

Of course I'm not proclaiming that henceforth there must be no competition. I understand that quite a few people rather enjoy the odd kickabout of a weekend and I myself am quite partial to the occasional game of scrabble. Nor am I saying that competition cannot improve services and keep prices down. Some people seem to respond to that sort of motivation. But it can't be trusted. It has a logic all it's own that has nothing to do with what people actually need or want. Like natural selection, to which it is obviously related, it has no forethought and no conscience. It just does whatever works and doesn't care what it extinguishes along the way (including itself). And yet we have elevated competition to the level of a universal panacea for human shortcomings. 'Make them fight' we say. 'Let's see who's the better man.' But instead we only find out who's the most devious, the most amoral, the most venal. And once they have taken what they can, what can the rest of us do but squabble over what's left?
I like the analogy of the football crowd. Once one person stands up everyone behind him has to stand up in order to see. In the end no one can see much more than they could before but everyone's more uncomfortable.

So if you’re planning a garden you don’t just accept that the whole place is going to be taken over by brambles and bindweed. No, if you’re a keen gardener, chances are that a lot of the plants you want will require special treatment and protection. Your veg will need extra nutrients and protection from pests and diseases. Those prize alpines will fail if they get shaded out or overcrowded. No gardener thinks that the best thing is simply to let the biggest most aggressive weeds take over on the grounds that it ‘maximises growth’. The word ‘weedy’ is usually applied to weak and needy people but in the garden it’s the invasive and the opportunistic we need to weed out...

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