As with the normal state of affairs in nature, economic competition is not appropriately described in military terms and it is a bad metaphor to speak of "the conquest of a market". John O'Sullivan pointed out:
"competition suffers greatly from confusion between its colloquial meaning and its technical economic usage. We are all aware of the psychological tensions of self-conscious competition in sport, say, or school examinations. Socialist theory encourages us to transfer these emotions to capitalist competition. But such tensions and rivalries play almost no part in the impersonal process of free market competition in which entrepreneurs, seeking to sell their goods and services for the best price, are rarely aware of one another's existence." ("Preaching To The Converted" in Quadrant, April (1983) p 77).
It is especially misleading to think that sellers are in conflict with buyers. Both parties to a voluntary transaction can be well pleased with the deal. Survival of a firm in an open market depends on keeping the customers happy, which is the very reverse of exploitation. The latter can usually only occur when a monopoly is created by state intervention, or by unusual circumstances such as geographical isolation. In contrast, open markets ensure that entrepreneurs have to compete to provide better or cheaper goods and services. This argument does not depend upon every market being perfectly open, nor does it ignore the possibility of "sharp practice" on the part of the sellers or buyers. The point is that competition in the marketplace tends to lead in directions that suit consumers and the common good. Force and fraud can occur in open markets, and here the state has a valid function to provide avenues for legal redress if properly negotiated contracts are not met. By contrast with the incidental and hazardous nature of malpractice in open markets under a strong legal system, force and fraud are endemic in markets that are monopolised, whether by the state itself or by state patronage of private interests. Competition in closed markets tends to shift from pleasing buyers to maintaining or extending monopoly powers which enable firms to pay very little attention to the wants of consumers.
One of the essential aspects of competition as it occurs in war and sport is lacking in the marketplace. This is the "zero sum" result where gains by one party can only be obtained at the expense of the competitor. "To the victor the spoils." A win belongs to the winner and the other side has to take second place. This is the mentality of the Marxist class war and it has been built into industrial relations where trade unions attempt to do better for their members at the expense of the capitalists instead of working for productivity gains that would make everyone better off.
As noted above, the "zero sum" does not apply in economic affairs when both the seller and buyer are happy with the transaction. The situation in education is more complicated because a "zero sum" aspect can be presented where "coming top" is excessively valued for its own sake, or where material gains follow from good results. The mentality of the race course or the football field does intrude into education, and achievers have an incentive to perform in order to obtain high marks.
Competition has a more rational justification when high performance is required for access to prized employment opportunities or higher education. But a "cut throat" aspect of competition in this situation is produced by scarcity of places in higher education, and this is due to state controls on the supply. This "good" is provided free of charge and demand has to be artificially kept under control by rationing. Many young people are denied access, many choose to take courses that have little intellectual content or practical value and many have to settle for their second or third choice for a course.
Higher education should be available to all who reach an adequate standard and have some positive motivation to pursue a course of studies. This situation could be achieved by charging fees so that supply could adjust to demand at the level of individual courses. School leavers who do not value higher education enough to pay for it would do something else and children from poor families could be helped in various ways, ie means-tested scholarships, low interest loans, or loans to be repaid during subsequent employment. At the same time, competition for entry would shift from the struggle against others to the struggle to meet standards.
The "new class" of social engineers has trained its artillery on standards as well as upon competition, and it is standards that need to be protected rather than competition. This means that, among other things, external assessment is required. The concept of striving to improve oneself and one's capacities in relation to standards of excellence could, to some extent, displace the relatively crude notion of competition against others in the classroom. This concept also has a place in sport, as described below.
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