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Free Competition and Good Strife

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui [1]

Many dogmas of classical economical theory are being quickly revised in the last months. But there is one which resists, as far as I know, criticism from almost all sides, leaving aside some picturesque nostalgics. Free competition seems to stand today as a pillar of new and revised models as much as it has been from the times of Adam Smith. The first formulation of the benefits of competition is, however, much older. In Greece, more than 2700 years ago, Hesiod began his Works and Days with these lines (on translation of ancient poetry, see this previous post [2])

So there was not only one race of Strifes, but all over the earth there are two. A man would praise the first one after understanding her.

The other is blameworthy: and their spirit is wholly different.

For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel. No man loves her, but men, forced by the will of the inmortals, pay honour to harsh Strife. But the other was born the first from dark Night, and the son of Cronos, who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is much better for men. She wakes up even the shiftless to work; for a man grows eager to work when he sees another rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with his neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is good for mortals. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and bard of bard.

These lines, apart from being an early apology of free competition, offer the key to the amazing production in many different fields of Classical Greece in a very short spam of time. The Presocratic philosophers we are dealing with in this blog in the last weeks surpassed each other in their respective cosmovisions due to free competition. Anaximander vies with Thales, Parmeni des with the Milesians, Empedocles with Parmenides, Heraclitus with Pythagoras. In the same way, the Peripatetic Lyceus will vie with the Platonic Academia, as Stoics with Epicureans, and from this competition between schols the foundations of all later philosophy were laid. The same happened with arts: red-figure pottery rose precisely in competition with the black figure one. In poetry the productivity of competitive spirite is even more clear: Hesiod himself won a contet of rhapsodic poetry, and there are many traces in Homer of competition with other oral poems which constitute some of the finest pieces of his works.

Tragedies and comedies in 5th century Athens were all composed for dramatic contests. The competitive principle, in literature as in all arts, was “to do the same, but to do it better”.

This agonal spirit could only arise in Greece (contrary to Egypt or Persia) from a lack of central power which established fixed rules. Different independent cities competed among them, and the different agents of political power (aristocrats in aristocracies, orators in democracies) competed within each city. Out of this constant rivalry came wonderful works of art, everlasting discourses, new visions of the world. Not that competition was always idyllic: more than once the good Strife turned into the first one, political competition ended up in prosecution and death, and challenge among cities resulted in war…

Of course, as in all good allegories, or mathematical models, the two types of Strife are ideal forms which do not appear in reality as pure archetypes but mixed in many complex forms. Perfect competition does not exist but in books, as everyone knows. What regulating organs try to do is to make the actual market as close to the second Strife as possible, and avoid some practices which are closer to the first destructive Strife.

The same happens in many other spheres. Strife is encouraged within set limits for “hate” and “jealousy”. Economic competition is considered good as long as it does not turn too Darwinistic. Political competition is allowed within the limits of political rules. Perhaps the clearest example is to be found in a modern revival of the ancient agonal institution par excellence, the Olympic Games. I remember being left waiting for a delayed train in Lausanne for some hours, and I had nothing to do but to see the Olympic Museum. Lausanne is one of these cities where you find yourself always going up, for some reason. But the effort was worth, the Museum is stupendous and really transmits the Olympic spirit: citius, altius, fortius… The essence of the Olympics is fierce competition among equals, within the chivalrous rules of the knightly tournaments: you may train, you main invent new strategies, you may play psychological tricks in order to win; but you cannot cheat; you cannot kill your rival; and four years later, you will have to compete again.