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Did Adam Smith Get It Wrong?
on February 23, 2007
Having just finished No Contest: The Case Against Competition, fully twenty years after its first publication, I feel like someone coming late to a party, only to find few have arrived before me in what I expected to be a crowded gathering. Scanning the divergent and often passionate Amazon reviews offered on this provocative, original, and gentle but thoroughly radical critique of our society, I felt compelled to add my voice and ask, simply, did Adam Smith get it wrong?
However you might answer that question, now or after reading No Contest, you will agree that the implications of your own answer are considerable, for you and, perhaps, for us all. Your ideas about competition are fundamental to the way you will live your life each day, to the type of world you will work to create, and to how you will feel about and treat those of us who are around you.
Across twenty-five reviews of No Contest spanning a decade, the book garners a solid four out of five stars, but there is a divergence in these reviews that is telling and important. Amidst mostly five-star ratings and words of praise and encouragement for what is an excellent work, consistently about twenty percent of reviewers rank this book very low and offer commentary that is quite dismissive. These latter reviews seem, in some cases, to lack poignancy and clear expression, an infraction Kohn cannot be accused of, and some are quite hostile.
I bring up this persistent disparity of reactions to No Contest because it underscores a central hypothesis of Kohn's work: that competition and the competitive structures around us alters us. Kohn's assembled research suggests that competition makes us reactive, aggressive, closed to new ideas and inimical to alternatives, bound to the rules of the games we are made to play.
Competition, Kohn argues, makes us less sensitive, less productive, less creative, and perhaps less intelligent. Competition narrows our focus and makes us less able to see our frames of reference for what they are - frames. Ones that are in truth malleable and expandable, and as such, ultimately indefensible. Life in competitive structures, life in a competitive mindset, may even make us less engaged in life itself, as it almost certainly makes us less engaged in others and their lives.
I read No Contest on the recommendation of a friend, after a brief but lasting conversation on the practical virtues of cooperation. As a friend, even if we have not met, I will recommend this book to you too. I make this recommendation with the certainty that No Contest will at least give you an interesting perspective on modern life, that it might provoke and irritate you, and that it may, as other reviewers have noted, cause you to wake up and live differently each day. I certainly feel this third way, and think the book is worth reading, simply given its potential to affect you in this way.
As a book that compiles a diverse body of research, No Contest is technically impressive, especially given its seemingly uncharted subject. Even after twenty years, and even as it is disagreeable to some, I found the book extremely well planned, elegantly written, carefully reasoned, and finely passionate. For some, No Contest will be worth having for the bibliography alone, which is extensive. In fact, its assembled evidence and the startling conclusions they lead to is part of the potentially mind-altering nature of the book. No Contest was not what I expected, and likely will not be what you expect now, with divergent views and passionate reviews apt to continue for some time to come.
A few reviewers have criticized No Contest for not offering enough practical guidance, but I am content to be left to think, and think practically, about its many ideas and conclusions, on my own and with others. We all live in a practical world and so do need work at what we value, but we also need to wonder a bit: if cooperation is superior to competition in category after category of human affairs, why is there simply not more of it around us? Some might argue that cooperation is in fact there, but masked by the heavy and obvious icons of competitiveness that frame modern materialist society.
As I am affected and willing to consider this and the many other important questions the book engenders, perhaps you will be too. Game theory and computer modeling of the last two decades, coming after this book was published, may offer insights into the conditions under which competitive and cooperative structures win out, but as yet not a clear and recognizable path to the states of sustaining cooperation posed as possible and desirable by Kohn. (I would welcome being googled and corrected on this last point.)
One last thought: beginning in the 1970s, the organizational psychologists Chris Argyris and Donald Schon wrote about empirically far more common "model I" group dynamics and, also empirically, far more effective "model II" behaviors. I always was comfortable with these neat non-labels, and thought I understood what they entailed, tacitly attributing the difference to levels of individual and group stress. After reading No Contest, though, I am now far more inclined to think these human patterns should rightly be renamed for what they really are: "competitive" and "cooperative" group dynamics. I'll leave you to consider this idea, important for people working with others and suggestive of what you will encounter with No Contest.
To end somewhat near where I began, let me finish by saying that No Contest is an awakening for many people and an irritant and even an outrage for a few, probably to all who are disciples of Adam Smith, or deacons in the world his ideas have wrought. No Contest stirred in me both a child and an old man, each wiser in the way children and elders can be wise - in their propensity for innocence and in their indifference to headstrong heads - and I hope No Contest will be this for you and more.