The Griffith Review has just published a substantial essay of mine that?I’ve been working on for some time. I reproduce the introductory section below after which?you’ll have to hightail it to?their website to finish. But it would be good to see?you back here for comments which aren’t provided for on the Griffith Review website.
Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.
Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Lecture, 2009
SINCE ADAM SMITH, economists have marvelled at competition’s capacity to improve our world – not by fostering virtue, but by harnessing the opposing self-interest of buyer and seller in a market. As Smith himself famously suggested, instead of trusting his wellbeing as a consumer to the benevolence of the butcher, baker or brewer, he’d rather rely on their regard for their own interests in competing for his custom.
There’s a lively debate today about how to inject greater competition into Australia’s notoriously oligopolistic industries – like finance, supermarkets, fuel, energy and telecommunications – not to mention our new global digital overlords like Facebook and Google. And there’s a more ideologically charged debate about whether competition will drive better or worse outcomes in sectors where non-market values are important – like health, education and social services.
Having offered some thoughts on those issues elsewhere, in this essay I discuss something more fundamental and, because of that, widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this: In our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. That’s undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.
The analogy with sport is illuminating. Australian Rules football is the crucible of some of the most intense competition you can imagine. But unlike some thinkers about our economy and society, its administrators understand that competition won’t amount to a hill of beans unless the rules of the game make it the game we want to follow. Seeing things this way, it’s an obvious mistake to ask whether football should be competitive or cooperative. Competition and cooperation are inextricably entangled in the game, each defining the other.
The competition delusion sees competition and cooperation as two ends of an ideological spectrum. And it presumes that, where one has to choose, competition should be presumed preferable to cooperation. The perspective I’m sketching here suggests a new take on JK Galbraith’s argument about private affluence amidst public squalor. As he put it in 1958:
Cars are important, roads are not… Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses boost our standard of living, street cleaners are an unfortunate expense. Thus we end up with clean houses and filthy streets.
Whatever the validity of this critique of America’s real economy of the 1950s, it’s a remarkably and increasingly apt picture of the knowledge and ideas that govern our economy and society in the age of the competition delusion.