New Zealand Law Society - Competition as a source of social conflict

Competition as a source of social conflict

When competition holds sway over our society and our way of life we suffer as a species.

By Paul Sills

Does competition ensure our survival and continued development, or our demise?

Competition can be a test of strength, as Charles Darwin said: “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

Much has been made of Darwin’s famous phrase “survival of the fittest,” which first appeared in the fifth edition of On the Origins of Species. However, Darwin himself did not view the process of evolution as the survival of the fittest. Instead, he regarded it as survival of the fitter, because the “struggle for existence” (a term he took from English economist Thomas Malthus) is relative and not absolute.

We tend to ignore the subtleties of the distinction and focus on Darwin’s work as justification for an often aggressive, all-consuming approach to the idea of competition.

A working definition for competition in this context might be: “the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.”

We can instantly recognise parallels between this definition and the argument-as-war approach to conflict that is at the heart of litigation, where tactics are advanced ahead of substance and the parties divided into winners and losers.

Of course, this approach to competition is not restricted to courtroom debate and the outcome of commercial litigation. In fact, it underpins much of Western civilisation and has done so for some time.

Competition is a pervasive aspect of human life. Yet the values and attitudes that people have concerning competition vary widely, from the belief that it underpins social order to the belief that it corrodes positive social ties.

The pros and cons of competition

Some kinds of competition are healthy and can improve our self-esteem and increase our enjoyment of life. Competition can motivate us to work harder.

Competition can also be seen as essential because it leads to innovation. We strive to look for products with more features and capabilities, products that cost less but do more and that are better than their competitors at solving our wants or our needs.

Competition can lead to lower prices and encourages businesses to improve the quality of the goods and services they sell in order to attract more customers and expand market share.

However, none of these advantages seem to justify our views of conflict resolution as a competition, as something to be won or lost. Equally they do not seem to justify the competition we see within society – for wealth, for resources and even attention.

Competition has a negative effect on the way we approach conflict resolution and how we conduct ourselves in society. Competition has a deforming effect on business and therefore society when we see it driving manufacturers to “race to the bottom” as they are forever decreasing the price of their product to keep up with competitors and to hold on to market share.

Great for the consumer you might say, but where do the cost savings come from to allow those businesses to continually reduce prices? Initially, it is not taken from their profit margin, although this might suffer as prices drop. Instead, it comes from constraining and pressuring suppliers, creditors, employees’ income and benefits; it is achieved at a cost to the environment and feeds into our “more is better” consumption society.

If left unrestrained, the advantages of competition can quickly become disadvantages. That is particularly so when we carry our overriding focus on competition into our conflict resolution practices and into society as a whole.

Competition makes people less co-operative; it promotes selfishness and reduces our contribution to matters of public interest – all of which leaves society in a worse position. Competition forces us to become wholly focused on our self. Our decision-making is based primarily upon what is good for me, not what is good for the group.

Competition underpinning social order

America as a society celebrates success above anything else. If you are successful in America, you are “living the American dream”. If you are unsuccessful you are left to fend for yourself with no government funded healthcare and – it would seem to those of us viewing it from afar – no real interest in your well-being or even survival. America epitomises the modern industrial world’s view of survival of the fittest.

Success and competition underpin everything within the social order of America. We see this reflected in their approach to litigation and conflict resolution (both through the courts and internationally when dealing with issues of foreign policy). We saw this in the bailout of those considered “too large to fail” during the GFC, even though some of those bailed out caused the GFC.

We see it in the debate around the Black Lives Matter movement, the chronic health care problems that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed, and in modern American politics where there seems to be no ground in the middle of the House for consensus politics as there once was.

The corrosion of social ties

When competition holds sway over our society and our way of life we suffer as a species. Why? Because our survival is not dependent on competition or on the fittest prevailing. Darwin realised this in the latter part of his life. If we had, as a species, stopped to think about the long-term consequences of our actions, particularly since the advent of the industrial revolution, then we might have thought twice about the path we were heading down.

Here is what Darwin went on to say that I would encourage us all to think about as we reflect on the role of competition in both our society and in our approach to dispute resolution.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Competition invades all aspects of our life: competition for resources, business development, product development, social and economic development, and our very well-being. We view conflict as a competition to be won or lost – like the gladiators of ancient Rome we see it as a battle to the death where there are only winners and losers.

The advantages of competition in terms of innovation and pricing, as examples, do not justify the aggressive, competitive, win-at-all cost individualistic approach that we are conditioned to accept. Such conditioning allows us to walk past the ever-growing number of homeless people living on the streets without “seeing” them because they are losers, not people. This same conditioning allows us to “go to war” with our neighbours, our business partners, and our life partners when things do not turn out as we had planned.

The advantages of competition do not outweigh the disadvantages. Darwin knew that and we should too. Competition will hasten our demise.

Darwin hints at a better approach, which we will explore in the next article: Collaboration.

Paul Sills is an arbitrator, mediator and barrister specialising in the effective resolution of commercial and civil disputes.

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