Competition is good. That basic premise underlies every sports league, every capitalistic economy, and is even the basis of our preference for living as free, autonomous beings rather than as subjects of tyranny. Competition can catalyze not only an increase in the number of choices, but also an increase in their quality. But, how?
We might get a better handle on the idea by looking at the steps in the competitive process:
A goal is set. (An apple on a branch.)
A method is selected. (Jumping to reach it.)
An attempt is made. (A jump.)
An assessment of outcome. (High enough? Accurate enough?)
If we missed, it is easy to refine our method. We have to jump higher and/or more accurately. Whether we realize it or not, we may have even chosen jumping as our first method for the very reason that it is an easy process to refine. If our method appears to be a failure at some point, we will go back to the drawing board to invent a new, better solution. If there is another party working in parallel, we will have to establish better goals, select better methods, execute our attempts more efficiently, make more thorough assessments of the outcome of those attempts, etc., and all at a faster pace to keep ahead of our competition.
It’s clearly a long, complicated, and fragile chain of happenstance that leads us to a solution. An astute competitor might observe that such a process is quite vulnerable to disruption. In a competitive scenario, it might buy some time to break my opponent’s legs. And, if I had already broken his leg, I could probably buy even more time by breaking his neck. After all, he can’t jump high with a broken leg and not at all with a broken neck. Thus, we arrive at a general theory of war. It is the disruption of our competitor’s ability to compete, for the duration of the competition.
If I destroy my opponent, I have all the time in the world to get at that apple. Unfortunately, waging war has some serious drawbacks. To understand these drawbacks, we must understand the conditions under which we compete.
Just about any game we can think of has limits. Those limits are derived from two things, one being the competitors. A game of water polo has the solid ground around the pool as one of its limits, whereas, a game of golf might have a pool of water (such as a pond) as a limit. A game birds or fighter pilots played might have the Earth’s surface as a limit. A game fish or dolphins played might have the air as a limit. What the player is and can do provides a reference point for hard limits from which certain boundaries and specifications of the game can be drawn.
The other hard-limiting reference is the environment in which the game is occurring. Birds can’t use the Earth’s surface as a limit if there is no Earth’s surface. Fish can’t use the air as a limit if there is no air, etc. A limit that doesn’t exist doesn’t limit.
So, from the hard reference point, the player, and the hard frame of reference, the environment, the game “conditions” coalesce into being.
The problem with warfare, in general, is that the games we play are artificial. The conditions are not the natural interplay of point of reference versus frame of reference. They are a limited subset of those conditions. When we appeal to general warfare to win at specialized games, our competitors may appeal to the adaptation meta-tactic, and to one specific meta-adaptation in particular, mimicry. Then, the game reverts to having more generalized rules and limits. The game slides back into overt, outright warfare.
In the absence of disruptive dynamics or even under their full effect competition continues. The apple is still there on the branch. Jumping is still a viable solution to reaching it. The difference is that our primary method of competing, adaptation, is highly susceptible to disruption. Any process we use in the competition must be able to solve our problem but must also be able to withstand disruption of various types. We might say that our process needs to be robust. But, more robust processes are, as a rule, less efficient. Using a less efficient process means that our competitors can get to the apple before us by using a more efficient process.
Adaptation and efficiency are the two meta-tactics we heavily associate with competition, so much so that most of the games we play have rules limiting the use of others. But we tend not to look at our life in civil society as a game, so the ruleset we use to govern our behavior in that game doesn’t do as thorough of a job at encouraging adaptation and efficiency and discouraging other meta-solutions. That is to say that we allow cheating in society to make our “lives”, i.e. our game, easier. But, allowing cheating doesn’t make everyone’s life easier. It only makes it easier for the cheaters. It makes life harder for those competing against the cheaters and it eventually errodes the quality of life for everyone playing.
In more general terms, we could say that competitions can be won by solving problems, but the competition can also be greatly influenced by creating problems. Many peoples’ conception of “fair” play calls on players to solve problems, not create them. But solving our own problems is hard. Creating problems for others to prevent them from competing effectively, that is easier. Unfortunately, in the “game” of civilization, one person’s problem tends to have a ripple effect, and, so creating a problem for one individual of a society is ultimately creating a problem for everyone, including yourself.
Better and better solutions in society is good. More and more problems for individuals is bad. Our criteria for whether someone is competing “fairly” in our civilization should be determined by whether they are creating solutions for themselves or creating problems for others.