The competition delusion: the presentation

Early this year I published an essay in the Griffith Review critiquing what I called the competition delusion. I was passing by more common critiques of competition, which for instance argue that competition isn’t necessarily a great idea in numerous social services. All I have to add to that debate is to argue, as I did here, that that debate usually skips over what should be a prior question, but amazingly is not. That is, there’s not much point in having arcane debates about industry structure if you don’t have a system that helps you work out whether you’re doing a good job or not.

The phenomenon I christened the ‘competition delusion’ is the tendency to assume that competition is good, or at least OK when that competition is about the rules according to which competition takes place. That’s wrong – a delusion. Competition is for private goods, and the terms of that competition, which includes all manner of rules and governance of the competition is a public good. And though economists tend to argue that public goods should be delivered cooperatively because there’s no alternative, I make a stronger claim. That, if something’s a public good, delivering it competitively will degrade it. (This is distinct from a situation in which a body charged with delivering a public good competitively tenders out inputs to that good.)

In any event, one of the things I enjoy doing is presenting ideas as well as I can according to the demands of different genres. I was pleased when I came up with the basic idea behind the competition delusion because of its simplicity which can be very effectively demonstrated by analogy with sport. In a presentation, the challenge becomes how to present the central ideas in pictures. Anyway, I’ve done my best. Further ideas or critiques of my basic case welcome in comments below. With three months having passed since it was published, I’m able to reproduce the essay here, which I do below the fold.


Trust and the competition delusion:

A new frontier for political and economic reform

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Lecture, 2009


SINCE ADAM SMITH, economists have marvelled at competition’s capacity to improve our world – not by fostering virtue, but by harnessing the opposing self-interest of buyer and seller in a market.[i] As Smith himself famously suggested, instead of trusting his consumer wellbeing to the benevolence of the butcher, baker or brewer, he’d rather rely on their regard for their own interests in competing for his custom.

There’s a lively debate today about how to inject greater competition into Australia’s notoriously oligopolistic industries – finance, retail, fuel, energy and telecommunications – not to mention global digital overlords like Facebook and Google. And there’s a more ideologically charged debate about whether competition will drive better or worse outcomes in sectors where non-market values are important, like health, education and social services.

In this essay I discuss something more fundamental and widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this: in our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. This is undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.

The analogy with sport is illuminating. Australian rules football is the crucible of intense competition, but unlike some thinkers about our economy and society, its administrators understand that competition won’t amount to a hill of beans unless the rules of the game make it the game we want to follow. Seeing things this way, it’s an obvious mistake to ask whether football should be competitive or co-operative. Competition and co-operation are inextricably entangled in the game, each defining the other.

The competition delusion sees competition and co-operation as two ends of an ideological spectrum. And it presumes that, where one has to choose, competition should be presumed preferable to co-operation. The perspective I’m sketching here suggests a new take on JK Galbraith’s argument about private affluence amid public squalor. As he put it in 1958:

Cars are important, roads are not… Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses boost our standard of living, street cleaners are an unfortunate expense. Thus we end up with clean houses and filthy streets.[ii]

Whatever the validity of this critique of America’s real economy of the 1950s, it’s a remarkably and increasingly apt picture of the knowledge and ideas that govern our economy and society in the age of the competition delusion.


OUR LEGAL SYSTEM illustrates the issues. Litigation will always be a competition for the ‘private good’ of victory between two disputants. But legal procedure provides the public good – the rules of the game – according to which this competition takes place. In both the European ‘civil law’ system and the English-speaking ‘common law’ countries, parties to litigation and their lawyers compete just like the players on a football field. But the way the rules are administered is very different. In Europe, just as in a well-run sporting code, the rules and their application by an independent ‘referee’ remains paramount. Judges stay in control of the process, managing it so the lawyers and their clients understand that the point of the competition is to help the judge arrive at the truth to resolve the dispute.

By contrast, legal procedure in English-speaking countries is predicated on the idea that the public good of dispute resolution will emerge of its own accord from competition between each side. Imagine a football game refereed by the two opposing captains and an independent referee who is summoned onto the field to hear both sides’ arguments when they can’t agree, and there you have the procedural obstacle course of our adversarial legal system: law of the lawyers, by the lawyers, for the lawyers.[iii]

In our system, the parties’ lawyers nitpick and obfuscate, routinely frustrating the ultimate goal of resolving the dispute. Consider expert evidence: in civil-law countries, the court appoints experts that it deems appropriately expert, independent and disinterested. See how that represents the public interest – the interest we all share in trusting experts – and how our trust is strengthened when we understand that this expertise was selected and applied independently of the parties’ private interest?

By contrast, in our own system, it’s experts at twenty paces, each chosen by one of the parties. A duty is imputed to experts to be impartial before the court.[iv] But, unsurprisingly, there are experts who discharge that duty as they see it – avoiding bald untruths while spinning their testimony in favour of the side who’s calling (and funding) them. This maximises the private benefits available to the lawyers and their experts while minimising the public value of their expertise – and, in the process, our trust in them. As US legal scholar John H Langbein puts it:

The more measured and impartial an expert is, the less likely he is to be used by either side… Thus, the systematic incentive in our procedure to distort expertise leads to a systematic distrust and devaluation of expertise. Short of forbidding the use of experts altogether, we probably could not have designed a procedure better suited to minimize the influence of expertise.[v]

Ironically, this excess of competition imposes its own competitive burdens on the economy. The English-speaking countries where adversarial legal procedure dominates impose around twice the liability costs on their firms as many European countries. The most adversarial country – the US – imposes over 1.5 percent of GDP, four times the costs of the least costly country – the Netherlands.[vi]

The competition delusion as it’s applied in English legal procedure is Dickensian not just in its inefficiency, but also in its unfairness. As Andre Geim found out shortly after winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering graphene, it enables the strong to prey on the weak:

We considered patenting… Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational… company… The guy told me, ‘We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it’s really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us.’ That’s a direct quote.[vii]


IT MIGHT SURPRISE YOU that an economist regards ethics as central to this story. It will certainly surprise some economists. But let’s look at this through the eyes of one of our finest moral philosophers. In his landmark 1981 book, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press), Alasdair MacIntyre distinguishes between the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ goods of a practice,[viii] explaining himself with the story of inveigling a bright girl into an interest in chess by rewarding her with candy if she wins.

The skills necessary to win at chess are the ‘internal goods’ of the game. They include strategic imagination, computational accuracy and competitive intensity. Conversely, candy is an ‘external good’ – it comes from outside the game. For as long as it remains the girl’s motivation, she’ll be tempted to cheat. The hope is that she will ‘buy in’ to the spirit of the game, whereupon cheating loses its allure because it won’t improve her game.

By analogy, professions have specific ‘internal goods’. They include truthfulness, analytical skill, and buying into the professional’s fiduciary duty to their client in the wider context of behaving with integrity to all. To acquire such internal goods of practice – or ‘goods of excellence’, as he subsequently termed them – MacIntyre argues that one must practice at least three virtues: justice, courage and honesty.[ix]

When practising one’s profession, one can’t make up one’s own facts. And a good argument is one that would persuade the best of one’s colleagues, not just one’s own side. Thus, just as Francis Bacon proposed – sublimely – regarding the growth of science, that we cannot command nature except by obeying it, so the professional must master and obey the imperatives of their discipline to gain access to the agency it offers.[x] This idea of engaging with an external or objective order implies justice, which is secured only by allowing correctness within the practice to trump ego or power. This, in turn, implies equal treatment for equal merit within the terms of the practice. For example, a chess championship in which the wealthy could purchase an extra queen wouldn’t be a chess championship. And buying into the practice’s traditional standards of justice and truthfulness calls for courage in standing up for them, even at one’s own cost. For this reason, in MacIntyre’s vision – built in the image of Aristotle – the virtues are the foundation of virtuosity within the practice.

However, the internal goods of practice can’t prosper – can’t exist in the world as more than a hobby – without ‘external goods’, or what MacIntyre subsequently calls ‘goods of effectiveness’. These provide extrinsic rewards to practitioners – material rewards such as money (candy will sometimes do), power and esteem. We can also think of them as funding the practice by allowing it to bid resources (of people’s time and money) away from other worldly activities.

Here’s the serpent in paradise. External goods are necessary, but, at the same time, in tension with internal goods. This is an ethical tension. The risk is always that the pursuit of external goods compromises the pursuit of internal goods, and thus the excellence of the practice. As we might say if the girl kept cheating at chess, ‘candy changes everything.’

As MacIntyre puts it:

so intimate is the relationship of practices to institutions – and consequently of the goods external to the goods internal to the practices in question – that institutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order in which the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the co-operative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions.[xi]


I TAKE TWO points from this. First, virtue – and people’s pleasure in understanding and pursuing ‘the right thing’ – isn’t just essential to society’s health, but also to the economy’s. The economists’ vision of ‘perfect competition’ – in which the social role of virtue in serving the public economic interest is rendered redundant by the incentives competition generates in a market – might work tolerably in the market for vegetables. But it doesn’t in more sophisticated markets like those for knowledge and expertise.

Second, a prominent theme of micro-economic reform should be to minimise the tension between the pursuit of internal and external goods in our institutions and practices wherever possible. As the examples of legal procedure and sporting codes suggest, a central tool of doing so is ensuring that the public goods of practices – the shared behaviours and rules of the game – reflect the public interest in the terms of competition, not the private interests of competitors.

As Brennan and Hamlin observe, though economists focus almost exclusively on the incentives they face (that is, the external goods of practice), their dispositions towards virtue (that is, cultivating the internal goods of practice) matter also. But this is ‘almost entirely absent from the economist’s theory of institutional design’.[xii] The political scientist Elinor Ostrom – significantly, one of only two female economics Nobel Laureates – offers a balancing perspective in the quotation that opens this essay.

Moreover, the scarcity of virtue isn’t like the scarcity of a market commodity – produced by one party for consumption by another. Rather, it inheres within individuals who learn and unlearn it within social processes. Because of this, virtue also tends to be self-reinforcing – it is typically learnt from the virtuous. Virtue shares this quality with vice. But where virtue must be learnt slowly and patiently, vice can do its work far more quickly. Gresham’s Law provides economists with a working model of this issue: it states that bad (adulterated or counterfeit) money drives out good.

And Gresham’s Law is running rampant through our economy and our public life. The pity and tragedy of this is that we’ve stood by as private interests have mobilised the competition delusion to pursue their own interests, in the process prising professional interests and duties far further apart than they need to be. Just as the adversarial system of legal procedure minimises virtue and maximises vice in the application of expert knowledge, our institutions are being reconfigured to do the same.


EIGHT CENTURIES AGO, the barons negotiating with Bad King John understood the importance of trust for trade and commerce to thrive. So Magna Carta’s Clause 35 specifies clear rules of the game, providing uniform weights and measures for four different commodities: grain, cloth, beer and wine (they were a boozy lot). Similarly, in today’s immensely more complex world, legislated requirements that various organisations be audited provide a similarly crucial public good – vouchsafing that financial accounts reflect reality.

Yet – incredibly – as with legal procedure, this was all compromised from the get-go. Firms select their own auditors, all in the name of competition. With private interests increasingly dominating the rules of a game that should represent the public interest, the insiders increasingly prey upon the outsiders and complexity ramps up. Audit is far more lucrative than it would be if it were truly independent because prospecting for ‘wiggle room’ within the auditing standards is so lucrative for auditors’ corporate customers.

Wealthy economies, particularly English-speaking ones, have become progressively more dependent on financialisation – a cluster of professional services in accounting, audit, finance, law, insurance, broking, financial advice and credit rating. The share of Australia’s economy going to financial services has roughly doubled, making us world leaders in financialisation. The additional $80 odd billion per year now coursing through our finance sector has coincided with lower investment and productivity growth.[xiii] These services enable their clients to manipulate the rules of the game to play ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ – maximising profits and bonuses while offloading tax liabilities and downside risk. This doesn’t just degrade the efficiency of our economy as surely as dodgy weights and measures would. Like the taxes Bad King John levied on his townsfolk, the benefits to those in charge of this scheme are a form of predation – by the strong upon the weak.

The upshot? As Martin Wolf reports:

Over the past four decades, and especially in the US…we have observed an unholy trinity of slowing productivity growth, soaring inequality and huge financial shocks… US corporations report seven times as much profit in small tax havens (Bermuda, the British Caribbean, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Singapore and Switzerland) as in six big economies (China, France, Germany, India, Italy and Japan).[xiv]


THE COMPETITION DELUSION is also coming for science. Two generations ago, some competition between universities was implicit in students’ and academics’ capacity to choose one university over another. This was part of a rich tradition summed up in conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s 1950 description of the university as ‘a corporate body of scholars…a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended’.[xv] Science was one of the public goods to arise from this situation.

Universities allowed the best researchers the freedom to pursue their passions. However, there were plenty of pockets of complacency.[xvi] And the crucial public goods on which science is built – such as peer review and the replication of previous studies – went unfunded. From the 1980s onward came reform that sought to expand access to university education and foster increased business innovation.

Though pursued ostensibly to maximise public value from rising public expenditure, reformers’ imaginations didn’t run to fixing the existing public good problems. Instead, both system administrators in government and individual research organisations competing with one another increasingly used publication metrics to identify academic merit. This reductive approach enabled the competitive strength of researchers and their organisations to be assessed without the slightest understanding of their work. What could possibly go wrong?

Australian rules football administrators aren’t so foolish. They know that getting players and clubs to compete for the external goods of money and glory is easy. The hard part is identifying excellence and crafting the rules of the game to elicit it. Of course, it’s immensely harder to govern scientific research than football. Given that, the scandal isn’t that the reformers failed in reformulating the rules of the academic game – it’s that they barely noticed the need to try.

The tragedy is that, as the magic and miracle of co-operative peer production unfolded on the internet, even greater miracles surely beckoned in open science. The internet could have turbocharged scientific advance through collaboration across the globe, with the internet fostering faster, cheaper, vastly wider publication, and the sharing and repurposing of data, software resources and results. But reformers took little notice. Today’s open science in academia is pursued by an adventuresome minority despite, rather than because of, reform. It’s received fairly marginal support from governments, academic institutions and researchers, caught up, as they now are, in relentless competition.

Courtesy of the competition delusion, the internet was colonised largely for institutional and private benefit. Professional ethics meant that while journals were controlled by universities, they were reluctant to exploit their market power. (Needing access to academic journals to do their job, academics are a captive market.) Yet, through the reform period, corporate publishers continued buying up the most prestigious journals. They then doubled, tripled and quadrupled their subscription prices. Subscriptions to neuroscience journals rose nearly tenfold.[xvii] With academics providing all the critical inputs to journals – from authorship to peer review – it’s as if we auctioned off the oxygen in our atmosphere to the highest bidder so they could sell it back to us.

With career incentives more tightly pegged to publication, the digital revolution also made shortcuts to publication easier. With one in twenty random data associations uncovering a correlation at the 95 per cent level of significance – which is the (arbitrary) threshold of most scientific publication – finding such correlations is like shooting fish in a barrel. There’s even an online engine enabling you to find your very own bogus correlation at whatever statistical significance you’d like, such as that between mozzarella-cheese consumption and civil engineering doctorates.

It’s not surprising that academic publications are full of bogus findings. Leading scholars recently found that only 11 per cent of pre-clinical cancer studies could be replicated, with the most prominent, John Ioannidis, coming to this devastating conclusion: ‘Overall, not only are most research findings false, but, furthermore, most of the true findings are not useful.’ As with financialisation, so much knowledge and skill is wasted, or worse, producing active harm. Before reform, academic institutions were inefficient but effective. Today, they’re efficient but ineffective. But, as with financialisation, those at the top have rewarded themselves handsomely: some Australian vice chancellors make well over a million dollars annually.


THE OUTRAGES OF financialisation provide a specific example of a more general tendency that’s always been problematic in our culture, but it’s now accelerating with frightening speed. Knowledge and information throughout our economy and society are being degraded on an immense scale. That’s because, as with legal procedure, the standards according to which competition takes place are public goods. But they reflect the private interests of those with products to sell, axes to grind and stories to spin, not the public interest we all have in being informed.

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 pamphlet On Bullshit (Princeton University Press) details what’s going on. The liar and the truth teller share an interest in the truth, though with different motives. Bullshit is speech uttered with no interest in the truth. In so far as speech is about conveying information, then bullshit is to speech as counterfeit notes are to currency. Where a lawyer or auditor might stretch the truth without telling any lies, marketing and advertising frequently bypass our rational faculties altogether, drawing us into a world of affect and fantasy.

David Beckham advertised a perfume a few years ago. It was called ‘Beyond Forever’. I hope that clears things up for you. On a more prosaic level, consumer products are marketed with claims that have been crafted – perhaps tested – to incite trust without imparting information. Each night as I reach for my toothpaste, the words ‘Superior protection for a healthy mouth’ stare back at me. Advertising for restaurants features a similar repertoire.[xviii] But since the advent of TripAdvisor and Yelp, we’ve got much more useful information on restaurant quality. Why? Because in regimenting consumer feedback into a given number of stars and a few words, and in policing fake reviews, TripAdvisor sets a standard. That standard is a public good that sets the rules of the information game just like advertising does. But where advertising’s standards, to the extent they exist at all, are set from the point of view of the producers, TripAdvisor’s standard meets the needs of the consumer.[xix]

Just as the ‘smart money’ in professional services goes into ‘stretching the envelope’ rather than telling the unvarnished truth, so the resources devoted to ‘spinning’ information to private advantage have for many decades dwarfed those devoted to journalism, which reports directly to the public. And the disparity is growing. In the US in 2004, there was one reporter for every 3.2 PR operatives; this rose to 4.6 in 2013, with the reporters’ relative salaries falling from 71 per cent of the PR operatives’ to 65 per cent.[xx]


EVEN THIS HUGELY underestimates the scale – and the profundity – of the problem. Even if they wanted, those in the media can’t defend the public’s interest in the truth ahead of spin. In the commodified, fast-foodified infotainment landscape we’ve built, providing information or policy analysis doesn’t pay. We want it kept snappy. Long before any race to the bottom set off by social media, competition for ratings sent presidential sound bites on US network news from forty-three to nine seconds in duration from 1968 to 1988.

We also relate to politics as barrackers for one side or another. Realising that fact, Fox News opened up a lucrative new market in partisan propaganda as news and current affairs. As the network’s former executive vice president Chet Collier put it, ‘Viewers don’t want to be informed; they want to feel informed.’ But even when media outlets aren’t descending into partisan propaganda, the reporting that remains adheres mostly to the ‘he-said-she-said’ standard. The rules of the game here are that the media presents both sides on a ‘level playing field’, just as they would in our courts’ adversarial system. The conflict entertains the audience. And it’s cheap, making minimal requirements on journalists to set the agenda, check facts, defend standards of candour or cultivate a productive exchange. As the competition delusion sets Gresham’s Law in motion, truth is balanced by lies,[xxi] science by spin.

The devastating truth is that we’ve been careening towards this fake news moment for decades. Today, the most important politician in the developed world lives by facts supplied via political chat shows on his favoured propaganda network, tweets from unknown origins and his own rampaging id. Way back in 1981, MacIntyre foreshadowed the world we now inhabit:

In any society which recognized only external goods, competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature… We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.[xxii]

Hunter S Thompson sketched the upshot of this Gresham’s Law of culture more pungently: ‘In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.’[xxiii]


THE ISSUES I’VE raised for our knowledge economy provide a new frontier for economic reform beyond the ideological heroics of deregulation. But how we recover from the competition delusion in our public life is none too clear. We can’t start without acknowledging our own complicity. We decide what appears on our screens. We decide which politicians get elected and (by the values we defended in our voting choices in decades past) the terms on which they govern. But we do so in an institutional context of relentlessly optimised competition at every turn within an increasingly uninhabitable political culture.

I have a fond hope that we can find our way back to sanity by exploring a repertoire of non-competitive means to represent the interests of communities and recognise and promote merit. There are many examples,[xxiv] but just one is the jury – another of those basic public goods specified in Magna Carta. For the way the people are represented in juries – not via electoral competition, but via sampling from ordinary people – suggests a new repertoire in our public life.

Already, the US state of Oregon, a province of Belgium and the city of Madrid have established ongoing advisory roles for assemblies of ordinary citizens selected as juries to deliberate on public matters. Citizens are remarkably constructive in such circumstances. The time they get to deliberate together helps deprogram them from the hype, aggression and peremptory misrepresentation that otherwise envelops debate on public issues. As they deliberate and learn more, their regard for politicians and government officials recovers as they come to inhabit the dilemmas those groups face. Their already desultory regard for the media falls further.

And something more fundamental occurs. We’re the species that evolved to survive by solving problems. So, when constituted as cohorts of everyday people from the community, citizens’ juries soberly go about solving those problems rather than turning them into a Punch and Judy show. We’ve learnt to distrust those competing for our votes, and those with different ideologies. But when we meet together in citizens’ juries, our trust in one another comes flooding back. Typically, over 90 per cent of those participating in well-run citizens’ assemblies become enthusiastic converts. About half experience it as a revelation, having lived Aristotle’s claim that, unique among the species, we are political animals.

Australia led the world in democratising electoral politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We could do ourselves, and the world, that favour again by becoming a beacon once more. Increasingly, in our current system, the public only gets to choose which oligarchic faction they support. And they’re turning off in droves – that is, when they’re not enraged. By pioneering a life for ourselves beyond the competition delusion, we could make our way once again towards the ancient Athenian vision of democracy as a system in which every citizen takes turns in ruling and being ruled. By doing so, we could summon that part of ourselves that Abraham Lincoln reminded us so sublimely is the ultimate foundation of our democracy, and its fruit: the better angels of our nature.




[i] In the canonical formulation within economics, Dennis Robertson suggested that ‘economists’ economise on love. Robertson, D. (1956). What do economists economize on. Economic Commentaries. Staples Press, London.

[ii] This quote is a paraphrase of Galbraith from a heavily abridged version of his The Affluent Society:

[iii] Before the eighteenth century, the English legal system placed judges at the centre of the case. Then the lawyers captured the process, and sold it the competition delusion. See Langbein, J.H. (1978). The criminal trial before the lawyers. University of Chicago Law Review, 45, 263–316.

[iv] Lee, J. (2019). Procedural reform to the system of expert evidence in medical negligence cases in Malaysia. Journal of Malaysian and Comparative Law, 39, 61–76.

[v] Langbein, J.H. (1985). The German advantage in civil procedure. University of Chicago Law Review, 52, 823–866.

[vi] According to this study, other English-speaking countries had lower litigation costs than the US, but still substantially higher than European countries. US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (2013). International comparisons of litigation costs: Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States.

[vii] Brumfiel, G. (2010). ‘Andre Geim: In praise of graphene’ Nature, 7 October.

[viii] A reasonable summary of MacIntyre’s definition of a practice is that it’s some field of skill or skills in which one can always learn more. MacIntyre, A. (1981). After virtue. University of Notre Dame Press. p. 191.

[ix] MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 191.

[x] Fully considered, that injunction requires obedience to two orders: that of objective reality in nature and the traditions of the practice of science, which has proven so successful in interpreting and manipulating nature.

[xi] Emphasis added. MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 194.

[xii] Brennan, G. and Hamlin, A. (2000). Democratic devices and desires. Cambridge University Press. pp. 58–59. The passage I have quoted is directed towards ‘economising on virtue’ (a framing that, as I suggest in the subsequent paragraph, is not the best way to think about the issue). However, I’m confident that the general thrust of Brennan and Hamlin’s analysis supports my use of the quote in this context. Though the words quoted were written nearly twenty years ago, Geoff Brennan has confirmed in email correspondence that they still appear to hold today. Sadly, Brennan and Hamlin’s discussion of the issues does not get to grips with the issue here, which is the extent to which the external goods of practice undermine the internal goods of practice.

[xiii] This claim abstracts from the surge in mining investment during the mining boom, much of which occurred within large corporates with strong internal access to finance.

[xiv] Wolf, Martin. (2019). Why rigged capitalism is damaging liberal democracy. Financial Times, September 18.

[xv] See, for instance, Oakeshott, M. (1989). The idea of a university. In Fuller, T. (Ed.), The voice of liberal learning: Michael Oakeshott on education. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. pp. 95–104. The essay first appeared in The Listener in 1950.

[xvi] Adam Smith’s observations on eighteenth-century Oxford are famous:

If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who either are or ought to be teachers, they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own. In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.

Smith, A. (1776). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.

[xvii] The problem: Students can’t access essential research… (n.d.). The Right to Research Coalition.

[xviii] Consider, for instance, globally branded fast food such as McDonalds and KFC.

[xix] If you’re thinking there are no standards in advertising, that’s not quite right. First, some standards specify practical matters – TV ads are sold mostly in fifteen- and thirty-second slots and print ads are sold in similar preset sizes. There will generally be some ‘ethical’ standards – but unsurprisingly, those ethics tend to reflect the advertising and broadcasting industries’ interests in not exceeding some sufficiently egregious level of deception or offence and not to put off other potential advertisers.

[xx] Just as Harry Frankfurt defined bullshit as speech offered not to lie or tell the truth, but without regard for truth, so journalist Nick Cohen offers to distinguish the press officer or ‘comms manager’ from the journalist:

Press officers have no concern with truth. It is not that all of them lie – although many do – rather that truth and falsity are irrelevant to their work. Their sole concern is to defend their employers’ interests. That they can manipulate on behalf of central government, local authority and other public bodies is an under-acknowledged scandal.

[xxi] See Wren, S. (2019). Why did the UK become a failed state? Mainly Macro, 20 August.

[xxii] If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, it also sets off a kind of Gresham’s Law of culture in which all learn the glib and oily arts. As Geoffrey Bateson observes:

There seems to be something like a Gresham’s law of cultural evolution according to which the oversimplified ideas will always displace the sophisticated and the vulgar and hateful will always displace the beautiful.

Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. EP Dutton, New York. p. 6.

[xxiii] Thompson, H.S. (1971). Fear and loathing in Las Vegas. Penguin Random House.

[xxiv] For instance, the method of ‘double randomisation’ used to select spokespeople in the South Australian citizens’ jury on nuclear waste:

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7 Responses to The competition delusion: the presentation

  1. Kien Choong says:

    Thank you, very interesting.

    I like the way Amartya Sen distinguishes between “correspondence rationality” and “reflective rationality”. Our training in school and university mostly focuses on correspondence rationality, but we spend too little effort on reasoning reflectively about our end goals and commitments (e.g., to ethics, virtues, etc).

    While it is perfectly legitimate to have self-centered goals, those are not the only goals that we can have. We ought to spend more time reflecting on our life goals and commitments.

  2. KT2 says:

    “In this essay I discuss something more fundamental and widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this:in our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. This is undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.”

    Worth the pricw of admission alone, I sincerely hope – “the terms on which that competion takes place” – is adopted the world over.


  3. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, is there a way for me to unsubscribe from select posts? I can do this for other blogs, but the link for unsubscribing from select posts seem to no longer be in operation. I did reach out to the technical contact, but received no reply. (This was a few weeks ago.)

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    No idea I’m afraid. We’re all doing our best here with Jacques not being able to provide us with the service he once did. I’m personally glad the blog works at all.

    Sorry about that.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I certainly don’t think you’re going to be driven nuts from the volume of responses to this post :)

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    For further reference – from correspondence.

    another part that caught my eye was about auditing — that’s because 35 years ago I was thinking about the analogy between auditing and environmental impact assessment — here’s a fragment from something I wrote then about professionalism in ecology

    “Most professions …. the better they do their professional duty, the more they will please those who bring them work. Environmental impact legislation has created a different situation for consulting ecologists. In assessing environmental impact, their duty is to protect the interests of the public as a whole; it clearly was to this end that governments introduced environmental impact legislation. But they are employed by business organizations, and must please them if they are to be employed again. Ecologists share this difficult situation with Certified Public Accountants. A past president of the American Institute of Accountants described the problem of independence in these words:

    “He incurs an obligation to his unknown audience for integrity. He must protect them even though he does not know who they are, and he must do so even when it means opposing and denying the wishes of those who have employed him, and who he knows may cease to do so. This is independence.”

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