Competition and Equality

Here is a problem in human behavior whose solution might seem obvious but which turns out to be a sociological problem of great significance. Some people admire people who do things they can’t do, like playing the violin, while other people are dismissive or jealous of people who can do things that they can’t, such as dance or do statistics. When is it one rather than the other, and is it a matter of the personality of the person involved, in which case the explanation is psychological, or something to do with their circumstances, which is the sociological explanation? Let us look at some cases before getting on to my thesis, which is that we are in the presence of the conflict between competition and equality, something that is universal and very deep in social structure and has been going on since, I presume, cave man days or before, but is certainly visible throughout recorded history. Cain was, it seems, jealous of Abel, while Agamemnon admired and made use of the cunning of Odysseus.

Most people admire sports heroes. I think that any tennis player of note exhibits stamina and grace beyond anything I could have ever commanded. People who are somewhat athletic also admire people far better than they are. I also admire “Jeopardy” players for their breadth of knowledge and quickness of recall even though, in my best days, I think I could have given them a run for the money. On the other hand, people also downplay the significance of what they themselves cannot do. I knew someone who thought someone who did statistics was just settling for doing things by formula rather than opening his imagination to the humanistic insights that the speaker believed was also his own virtue. Here is a third category. People don’t only praise or disparage what they can’t do or do as well; they also praise or disparage what they can do. That happens when I admire Louis Menard or Adam Gropnik for their practice of the essay and for their knowledge of intellectual history. Yet people also seem to be disparaging themselves or others when they do not take note of the fact that they find it easy to make or keep friends, something, if you think about it, that not everybody is able to do. Indeed, some people will become jealous of those who acquire friendships with ease, even though, as the psychologists tell me, all anybody needs so as to gain some mental stability is one friend with whom to confide thoughts, emotions, ambitions. Push the social relations skills issue even further. We are grateful for the lovers we have acquired and yet are critical of those who are labelled womanizers because they seem to have great facility in acquiring lovers.

So how do we sort out the complexities of admiration and disparagement? A first order answer is that you admire those with whom you cannot compete and disparage the accomplishments of those with whom you do sense yourself to be in competition. This is an application of Georg Simmel’s distinction of one hundred years ago that we are jealous of people of whom we think we can emulate their accomplishments but are envious of those people who have accomplishments we do not think we can emulate, where we could not take their place. I am correcting that insight by suggesting that we admire rather than envy people who are out of our league.

The way to resolve all of these various factual situations is this: you admire people who are out of your league because you cannot compete with them, and so it is no loss to you to admit how good a sports star or a violinist is. Similarly, you do downplay or envy what you can’t do because you can compete with them in some larger context. An historian can dispute the relevance of statistical research because that can enter into his sphere of social explanation, and so the two methods of social explanation, qualitative and quantitative, can be seen as in competition with one another, and so an unfamiliarity with one is either a failing or else unnecessary. This is, in fact, a major form of conflict between academic disciplines despite surface amenities. Historians have contempt for sociologists; physicists for chemists; art historians for literary critics. They are too close for comfort even if that is not true at the highest levels of the disciplines where they make use of one another’s insights. This is not a matter of ranking academic disciplines for their degree of “hardness”; it is a matter of guarding the ramparts of one’s own discipline. (I am afraid academics are that petty, but this is not just a matter of bad manners: it has to do with the integrity of the disciplines.)

There is a third category, neither of competition or non-competition. This is to make the competition non-comparable. You do not recognize that the ability to make friends is a skill or a knack or a gift but, rather, just arbitrarily assigned or something everybody can do as part of their human nature, some people deciding to be more friendly than others, which means popularity is a choice and so nobody can be criticized for having few or many friends. Similarly, you can regard making textual comments as a skill everyone has. Preachers comment on the Bible; people comment on the movies they have just left; literary critics comment on Shakespeare or the latest novel. Everyone can do it even if some people spend more time at it than others and think they have more skill at it than others. It is also the case that some people are more articulate than others and most of the time we regard that as a trait, a choice, rather than a skill, even if sometimes, when people are feeling out of sorts, they will disparage the articulateness of others or the inarticulateness of themselves, which is to recognize articulateness as an accomplishment or a gift rather than a choice.

And so the key to this issue is whether such social situations and feelings, however random or arbitrary they may seem, are subject to being seen as varieties of stances toward competition. You compete in these largely non-economic matters or you don’t compete or you decide not to recognize the situation as one of competition. The alternative on this more abstract level is between competition and what we might call equality, which is that all people have an equal footing, where there is no need for competition but simply a recognition of the individual integrity of a person, people not needing to compare themselves to others except for practical matters, such as passing a civil service exam, but self-sufficient unto themselves. If you go out for high school football that is voluntary, as is the decision to show off in AP courses. Now certainly a great deal of life is competitive. You want to compete against other suitors for the hand of your beloved, but once that hand is won, the relationship is between the two of you. She is not open game. And, in fact, most fields of human endeavor share some protection for non-competition. You don’t rank friends (at least after middle school). You don’t rank devotion to family. In America, you steer away from ranking religions, even if ranking is assigned by social scientists to the various social classes, though lay people may feel uncomfortable in saying, other than in private, that a person from the working class is somehow inferior to a person from the professional class.

The difference between competition and equality is very profound. Defenders of the idea of competition say that it grants to each unit a putative equality in that each competitor in a market is an equal in that they each try to improve their fortunes by shrewd investments of capital and skill. So we are each equal in being hostages to fortune. But in fact the whole idea of competition is that some people will win while others lose, this inherent logic enforced by the idea that a market has to be constantly replenished with new competitors so as to keep the market functioning as old competitors relinquish the field of battle, their genius and resources exhausted. So the equality between competitors is not only putative in that different competitors have different resources and capabilities but that it is also temporary in that it lasts just long enough for some competitors to win or be defeated and that it means a lifetime of anxiety for those who remain in the competition in that at any moment they may be upended however fortunate they may think themselves. There is always a new product, a new way of merchandising, a depression or a war. A better musician will always come along.

But the model of equality is different in that one’s own competence as a musician is not challenged even if a better musician comes along. Rather, equality is sustained by the idea that one has been sufficiently successful as a musician to take pride in that whether or not one can win the first chair at the Philharmonic. You are equal comrades in your devotion to your craft or even disregarding that equal in that each of you has taken the amount of devotion to your craft you are capable of managing, so an ordinary musician can cede precedence to one who always practices and has more recitals and more genius, but who may not love Mozart any more than the inferior musician even if he or she is superior at appreciating Mozart. Making comparisons is possible between people who are equals.

In that case, equality between people depends on their internality, their identification in their souls of themselves as musicians, rather than on the results of the competition. They are in the same caste and that can be generalized to mean that all people are in the generalized caste of being human beings, to which caste neither chimpanzees nor robots have been as yet admitted. That goes not just for musicians; it goes for any calling and even for activities that are not callings, such as picking up your children from daycare. We all recognize fellow parents as people who have the internality that they care for their children may be more or less than you do but enough to be responsible about daycare. That is our humanity, which is the true meaning of equality. Economic forces everywhere exist and so can be said to be human. But so does music and literature and parenting and that is at least as characteristic of humanity as is what might be the temporary arrangements which now guide the market but which will be supplemented or modified somehow down the road. So to define humanity by competition is to be very narrow-minded, preoccupying yourself with temporary things that bring you up and bring you low, while focussing on other matters, like art or parenting, is forever, even if art passes through as many fads as the market. Art is real and so is shorting stocks but neither should be regarded as the real meaning of life, which may be nothing more or less than a commitment to one’s own identity.