Two Kinds of Competition

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Americans love the competitive element of elections, just as we like competition in sports and economics. But there is an important difference in the substance and result of political competition. Rather than improving performance and driving the teams to improve, political competition seems to have the opposite result. The two approved parties appeal ever more to the lowest common denominator and seem to replicate each other’s worst traits. Instead of excellence, we get mediocrity and downward drift.

The thought comes to mind after the disgraceful spectacle of the Bush-Kerry argument on the Iraq War. Bush lied the country into war, pointlessly smashed a civilized country, and embroiled the US in an unwinnable conflict (not that winning would thereby recommend it). Under genuine competition, the GOP would have an albatross around its neck. The Democrats would hardly talk about anything else. Instead, we have the Bush campaign crowing about how Kerry admitted that he would have done essentially the same thing.

It’s a rhetorical victory for Bush, of a certain sort. Bush might as well say: my opponent is as much of an opportunist as I am, and, had he been in charge, he would have been equally complicit in the use of mass violence. In short, we are being instructed that we may not accuse Bush of anything of which his opponent is or could be just as guilty.

One might think it would be good for Kerry to campaign against the Iraq War, but there is the issue of the voting-record. More importantly is the reality that Kerry already owns the antiwar vote: what he seeks are the swing voters who they can only assume are mostly jingoistic pigeonheads who prefer patriotic songs and Fox News to facts and serious thought.

And so it goes for many issues. Bush has been terribly protectionist. Kerry promises to be worse. Bush has been an outrageous big spender. Kerry says that he hasn’t spent enough. Bush dramatically expanded the welfare state. Kerry says it is not nearly enough. This is competition of a very strange sort: a contest to see how one can outdo the other in bad ideas and bad behavior.

Competition in the marketplace is of a different sort. It leads to relentless improvements in quality. The enterprise that performs its job with excellence relative to others promising similar goods and services succeeds. The marketplace is always open to new entrants who can show the existing producers how to do the same thing better or do something else entirely. The price of services and goods is always falling (apart from government inflation). Obsolete production lines are folded. Consumers reward shrewd producers and punish the dull ones, so that the best get on top. There is accountability for error and it is punished.

In politics, competitive pressures yield exactly the opposite. The quality is constantly declining. The only improvements take place in the process of doing bad things: lying, cheating, manipulating, stealing, and killing. The price of political services is constantly increasing, whether in tax dollars paid or in the bribes owed for protection (also known as campaign contributions). There is no obsolescence, planned or otherwise. And as Hayek famously argued, in politics, the worst get on top. And there is no accountability: the higher the office, the more criminal wrongdoing a person can get away with.

We often talk about the analogy between political and market competition, but they are radically different. To understand why, consider the differences in the competitive environment in public versus private school.

The public school is rooted in coercion. No one really wants to be there, so the pressures run in the direction of control, mediocrity, non-accountability, waste, and stupidity. In private school, the pressures tend toward excellence, accountability, and learning. It is not a universal rule, of course, but it is a dominant tendency. What marks the difference is the institution of private property, the structural prerequisite to productive competition.

Public school-like pressures exist for the entire political system. Under socialism, competition leads to constant declines in quality, morality, and performance. Ultimately this tendency destroys civilization itself. Under capitalism, competition leads to improvements in quality, morality, and performance. It is the very basis of modern civilization.

Public elections replicate all the worst aspects of socialism. Two candidates are unleashed to lie to the public for purposes of acquiring power over an institution that they do not own but will manage for four years, during which time this winning gang will sign off on the spending of some $8 trillion and have power to destroy just about any other government in the world. They risk virtually nothing in this game. The worst consequence they face is being voted out of office four years from now, and being made rich by the special interests they funded with your money.

In private enterprise, every decision of management is tested by the marketplace, every minute of every business day. Owners are constantly on watch and the consumers determine the course of all production. The people at the top only have power in the most superficial sense: it can be taken away immediately by the consumers who gave them power in the first place.

Just about everyone you talk to these days admits serious dissatisfaction with the election choices this year. And yet most people will eventually decide for the “lesser of two evils” — whatever that is, and there is probably no way to know in advance — realizing that no real viable option is going to emerge. In private enterprise, unmet needs are profit opportunities. In public elections, they are opportunities for graft.

The whole process is enough to make one cynical toward campaigns and elections. That’s the wrong response. There is nothing wrong with campaigns and elections — they are a normal part of corporate life and institutional management of all sorts, even in religion. The real issue is the fundamental problem of public property. Give me a chance to vote against that, and I might register again.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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