Competition as an Elimination Process

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Will Davies on the Economics, ... David Autor on Trade, China, a...

This week, EconTalk host Russ Roberts takes the role of an animal at the zoo, chatting with sociologist Will Davies about his observations of economists and how they think. Have economists had too much (or not enough) influence on politics and public policy? Share your thoughts with us on this and/or the prompts below. As always, we love to hear from you!

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1. What does Davies mean by the "disenchantment of politics by economics?" While Davies is concerned by this disenchantment, Roberts is worried we haven't been disenchanted enough. With whom do you agree more, and why?

2. How does Davies define "neoliberalism?" How does his definition compare to Scott Sumner's characterization in this Feature Article? How would Davies answer the question Sumner poses in this piece, "...why is the Left so skeptical of the neoliberal revolution?"

3. How does the recent craze for reality TV shows such as Britain's Got Talent or American Idol illustrate the place competition plays in our culture today? How closely aligned is this sort of competition to the competition economists speak of? Is this cultural approval of competition net positive or negative for society?

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Mike F. writes:

Davies seems to equate political engagement with concern for one's fellow members of the polity. If we are debating right and wrong, rather than disinterestedly voting with our feet on a transaction by transaction basis, we must have a closer community with more kindness and compassion. I guess I don't really see it that way. There can be good discussions and less good discussions. One of the things I love about Econtalk is that the discussions are always the good kind. Talk radio and TV is generally full of the bad kind.

The winners vs. losers discussions that go along with weekly football talk and election talk usually aren't the good kind. The elimination TV shows are usually more compassionate, as Russ pointed out on the podcast, than the political and sports oriented radio and TV talk. I don't think the competitive cooking, singing and dancing shows are highlighting the negative aspects of competition nearly as much as the positive aspects. The positive aspects are highlighted as people talk about raising their game and improving through hard work from week to week.

Liberalism, whether classical or neo, has some features that don't bring out the nurturing aspects of the human spirit. The will to win can be at odds with the will to harmonize. The human spirit has both elements in varying degrees. Each person needs to find the balance that suits their needs in their ever changing environment.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
1. What does Davies mean by the "disenchantment of politics by economics?" While Davies is concerned by this disenchantment, Roberts is worried we haven't been disenchanted enough. With whom do you agree more, and why?

Davies believes that "politics can be a space in which people achieve a kind of fulfillment that is greater than they are capable of just through their business relations or their consumer relations and so on." In other words, he's a Leftist ideologue. The "disenchantment" he's referring to is the general societal trend towards a sharp reduction in the amount of "fulfillment" and engagement in "politics" increasingly observed in society.

He argues that humans "have an innate need and tendency to debate questions of justice, of the common good, and to do so publicly. And that this is the essence of politics." A very "romantic" notion of politics, indeed. In other words, he's a Leftist ideologue. Neoliberalism, Davies contends, "wants to strip politics of that kind of romanticism" leading toward "an emptying of public life and an emptying of social life, if it's re-conceived and modeled purely in economic terms."

Clearly, I'm in the same solar system as Roberts, but not in the same Universe as Davies. The idea that politics results in "fulfillment" may resound with leftist ideologues, but my assessment of the past 15,000 years or so of "politics" is that it has been just one horrific brutal political rape and plunder after another.

Perhaps, every once in a great while, politics may incoherently mumble publicly about "questions of justice" or the "common good", but politics in practice, the kind that fills today's newspapers and the kind that fills history textbooks--the French revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, just to cite just a few historical Leftwing political disasters-- is about how politics generally promotes injustice and the good of the politically powerful and organized at the expense of the politically weak and disorganized.

Davies then asserts that "there's still a need for the rules and the state in order to make the system work" and that "authority is a political concept". He then concludes that "one of the contradictions of neoliberalism...[is that it] doesn't offer a basis with which to think about things like law and regulation and authority. Because it only offers more and more economic calculations and economic ways of thinking." In other words, the standard statist ideological position one would expect to be held by a Leftist ideologue.

I, of course, do not share his ideological presuppositions. I concur that "rules" and "norms" are necessary to establishment a functioning market, or a functional society. I disagree that a State is absolutely necessary to ensure markets or society function. Even if I were to concede that point (which I am not) I vehemently and fundamentally disagree that the behemoth "Nation States" that litter the globe are necessary to provide the "authority" necessary to enforce the "rules" and "norms" of markets or society.

Substitute the word 'God' for 'State' and the argument against statism is exactly like the argument against fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalist Christians argue that a 'God' is necessary to account for the existence of the Universe, therefore the 'God' as described by the Bible is necessary. Statists argue that the 'State' is necessary to provide the 'authority' necessary to enforce the rules of 'society' therefore the behemoth Nations States that infect the globe are necessary. I don't see the necessity of a 'god' let alone the 'God' of the Bible. I don't see the necessity of a 'state' let alone the 'Nation States' we see menacingly encircling us.

On the contrary, I believe that the very size and incoherence of such Leviathan States completely undermines their "authority". The 'State' is only tolerable to the extent that the society encapsulating it (and its 'norms') is "healthy"--that is, it's 'norms', values and customs are such that the individuals comprising it can thrive peacefully of their own accord without resorts to violence--that is, without resorting to authority. The more "healthy" the society is in that respect, the less need is there for the 'authority' Davies seemingly opines for. The less "healthy" the society is that respect, the more likely that 'authority' is to be malevolent.


If Davies is arguing that our--or maybe his-- 'society' is not very healthy, then why should we expect the 'authority' he wants should be anything but malevolent drawn as it must be from the same unhealthy society...

Mark Crankshaw writes:
How does his definition compare to Scott Sumner's characterization in this Feature Article? How would Davies answer the question Sumner poses in this piece, "...why is the Left so skeptical of the neoliberal revolution?"

Not very favorably, I'm afraid. I think Sumner makes a very commendable case that the Neoliberalism Davies so derides has, over the past few decades, left the glass almost full in precisely those parts of the globe that's it's been given a chance. Davies wants to continue to whinge that the glass is not completely full yet.

I can only go on what Davies has said of his skepticism of the neoliberal revolution. To carry on the Christian Fundamentalist analogy, like Christians often find 'fulfillment' from their religion, and they enjoy the rituals, the prayers, the communion with fellow 'believers', and the certainty of the faith, Leftist ideologues like Davies find 'fulfillment' from politics, and enjoy the rituals, the prayers, the communion with fellow 'believers', and the certainty of the faith.

Fundamentalist Christians believe that without God and his Laws, that mankind would quickly descend into a lawless spree of depravity. God has to tell us--and threaten us with eternal death-- that murdering, stealing, and acting like a prat is not a great idea because we all are just too dim to figure out that might actually be in our own self-interest.

Leftist ideologues believe that without 'The State' and its' Laws, that mankind would quickly descend into a lawless spree of depravity. 'The State' has to tell us--and threaten us with imprisonment-- that murdering, stealing, and acting like a prat is not a great idea because we all are just too dim to figure out that might actually be in our own self-interest.

I guess neo-liberalism seemingly rains on that particular 'religious' parade...

Mark Crankshaw writes:
How does the recent craze for reality TV shows such as Britain's Got Talent or American Idol illustrate the place competition plays in our culture today? How closely aligned is this sort of competition to the competition economists speak of? Is this cultural approval of competition net positive or negative for society?

I think Roberts addressed the difference between reality TV "competition" and the competition as described as described (admirably) by Wolfgang Kasper. The very design of those Reality TV shows is zero-sum in nature. The competition between employers over employees is not zero-sum for employees. All employees benefit when employers compete for the talent, ability, and efforts of employers.

I am a true aficionado of 'the beautiful game', football,(aka 'soccer'). World Football is a great example of positive aspects of competitive neoliberalism at work. It its a free market phenomena (the US governments efforts to promote sport is far too insular and jingoistic to have anything to do with its growth, popularity and success).

Players like Lionel Messi make phenomenal amounts of money as Clubs from all over the World compete for the best talent in an effort to compete. The 'disparity' between the have's and the have not's in the footballing world has never been bigger--no doubt an idea that keeps Lefties up at night. However, I contend that being a footballer today is better than ever before in history.

There have always been football players that toiled in obscurity in the Lower Divisions and remote Leagues throughout the World. This growing disparity is solely attributable to the growth of top flight 'professional' football from a handful of European countries in the 1950's to an explosion of 'professional' leagues--and a World Wide TV audience--that now encompasses the entire globe (including long-time holdouts like Australia and the USA). Never have the opportunities been as great for professional footballers than it it today--not so in the days of Pele, or even Diego Maradona. These opportunities have, ironically, 'trickled' down to the lowest amateur levels as even they often enjoy facilities and media opportunties (via the internet) that only the top clubs in the world enjoyed 50 years ago.

Is this cultural approval of competition net positive or negative for football? Absolutely. Well, now my Canaries are defending for their EPL lives, so I've got to go...

Amy Willis writes:

Lots of folks have commented that Davies' emphasis on the (positive?) influence of politics has drawn lots of comments in all spaces...And most associate that with (American) leftist politics...But I wonder if we ought to think on that more...The ancients had a long tradition of the good political life...In his "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle is clear that politics plays a necessary role in the cultivation of a virtuous life...If we take this as as assumption, then does the question become one of how we get the "right" (no pun intended) kind of politics in the political sphere? And if so, how on earth do we do that?

Mike F. writes:

It is very difficult to get the right kind of politics into the political sphere. The loudest voice generally gets heard. People concern themselves with the

Monied
interests or the populist interests and worry that they have too much influence in the political sphere. Various talking heads will interpret the pain or evil intention that is behind each political movement. But in a pluralistic society, different people and different groups have different ends. They can only talk past each other. They can't talk to each other. Their concerns just don't register in other groups' consciousness.

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