The Highs and Lows of Competition: Mediating Kohn and Tepper

Our three readings for this week—Jonathan Tepper’s “Competition is Dying, and Taking Capitalism With It,” Roberta Wiig Berg’s “Competition and Cooperation: The Wisdom to Know When,” and Alfie Kohn’s “Against Each Other: Interpersonal Considerations”—offer drastically different views on competition. Kohn’s chapter, in order to outline how competition may interact with personal relationships, argues that competition is inherently hostile and damaging. Tepper’s article, different from Kohn’s in both topic and outlook, posits that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, and that the current economic situation regarding monopolies is antithetical to competitive, freedom-giving capitalism. To navigate between these polar positions, I think it is important to investigate how the definitions used shape these arguments; I also think we can use Berg’s article as a way to give key insights into how these drastically different conception of competition can and should be analyzed.

Kohn’s chapter works from the previously established idea that competition is rampant on all levels of society, and in all sectors of life. While Tepper addresses competition only in a specific economic context, Tepper argues that competition is actually decreasing (and, that this is a bad thing). These two writers are saying different things about competition, but they are also importantly operating from different viewpoints as to the actual degree competition is occurring. I think this disconnect is happening because Kohn and Tepper are working from different definitions of the term “competition” (and speaking to different discourse communities).

Tepper uses the following metaphor to describe the relationship between capitalism and competition: “Capitalism is a game where competitors play by rules on which everyone agrees. The government is the referee” (3); therefore, when “Larger companies get larger, while the small disappear, and the consumer and worker are left with no choice,” neither competition nor capitalism are being honoured (2). Kohn would likely argue that the monopolization of certain enterprises is still competition, as this situation fits Kohn’s definition of mutually-exclusive goal attainment—the big company “wins,” at the expense of the small company. So, rather than see our current economic situation as a twisted or incorrect form of capitalism that is without competition, I think Kohn might see economic monopolization as a classic example of competition.

Berg operates from the assumption that competition is prevalent in people’s personal and professional lives, because almost all participants approached the “red-blue game” from a competitive perspective, despite the fact that simple reasoning would reveal competition to be a (almost) guaranteed way to “lose.” Kostaxinos6906 extrapolates this in their post by noting how competition can promote a frame of mind in which “people they can cooperate with for mutual benefit” end up automatically considered as competitors. Berg’s approach to competition as a common phenomenon is similar to Kohn’s, whose definition of competition means that it is indeed present in many facets of life.

Kohn and Tepper both take a hard-line stance in their conception of competition as either totally damning or completely freeing. Berg, I believe, treads between these two opposites, and offers some good points towards the evaluation of the usefulness of competition. This is because Berg’s study of the red-blue game, as a variant of the prisoner’s dilemma, concludes that agents should be empowered against unconscious or uncritical competitive behaviours. In contrast to Kohn, Berg argues that cooperation premised upon uneven distribution of resources and a lack of trust will crumble, and in contrast to Tepper, that competition based on habit rather than actual need will, more likely than not, result in failure. In this way, Berg is arguing neither for or against competition/cooperation, but rather for an understanding of the situations in which either is useful. Unlike Kohn and Tepper, Berg does not posit competition or cooperation as inherently better than the other. Kostaxinos6906, in their post, similarly observes this standpoint of Berg’s, saying that while “Berg emphasizes that competition is important in business, she also stresses the importance of cooperation and reflection.”

Berg’s position “between” these two articles is useful for our purposes, I think, because it orients conversation towards the practical consequences of competition and cooperation. Berg’s ambivalence can be positioned as a critique of Kohn’s pro-cooperative argument, as Berg says that cooperation cannot be mobilized under the assumption that it will work perfectly solely because it is cooperative in nature—there are many factors which can cause cooperation to break down which are not (directly) caused by competition. At the same time, Berg’s position cannot be said to align with Tepper’s. As evidenced by the red-blue game, always using competition as first-resort can cause people to react unthinkingly to new situations, with potentially disastrous results. In both cases, I think Berg’s framework can be used to posit useful critiques.

What definition of competition someone is working from will, obviously, influence what role they see competition playing in life—because Kohn and Berg use similar definitions, they see competition as prevalent, while Tepper uses a different definition, and so sees competition playing a lesser role. Within the triad of these three articles, I see Berg’s perspective on competition and cooperation—the reasons why these measures are used, and why they sometimes fail—as a useful lens through which to evaluate Kohn and Tepper, and could potentially be used in a similar way to investigate future articles.

(Image taken from here)

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for your post. I find your comparison between Kohn and Tapper are very interesting. I don’t remember too much about Kohn’s idea. But you mentioned that they took different perspectives towards monopoly. From my perspective, they were both correct in their discourse communities. Kohn was emphasizing the results of competition, which was the occurrence of monopolies. At the same time, Tapper focused on the results of monopolies. To be more specific, the monopolies reduced the competition due to lack of surviving competitors. I think they both had a target audiences of economists who focused on the study of different stages of capitalism.

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  2. Hi Grace, that was such an interesting read! What struck me the most was your concluding remarks, which argued that depending on the definition of competition, competition itself can exist in numerous different ways. As you mentioned, Kohn and Berg see competition as a prevalent part of life, whereas Tepper sees competition as playing a slightly different role within everyday life. If you think about it, this is really interesting to me, because the average person could argue that competition is a fairly objective term that can be easily quantified! However, this goes back to remind us that the ways in which we define concepts can really shape our perspectives of the world in ways that make sense of these concepts. For example, I might initially see competition in the strict economic sense (like Tepper), but after conceptualizing competition as an ordinary phenomenon (that resemble Kohn and Berg), I may begin to notice competition more in my everyday routine. Interestingly, I think that with this change of perspective, I may start to notice direct effects of competition as it now exists in my everyday life (e.g. experiencing stress due to the pressure of daily competition).

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  3. Hi Yang! Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that the respective discourse communities at play here are an important consideration, which I didn’t really focus on in this particular post. And, of course, definitions and discourse communities go hand in hand! I think it’s interesting that you point out how Kohn seems preoccupied with the occurrence of monopolies, while Tepper is concerned with the results of monopolies—this unstated (on the part of the authors) lens is another way to explain the discrepancy between their views of competition. As you say, once all competitors are gone, there will naturally no longer be any competition—I think the crux of the “argument” happening between Kohn and Tepper is whether or not competition is causing monopolies (or, put another way, whether competition can fix monopolization).

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  4. Hi Dankim17! Thanks for writing this provocative comment. On the surface, definitions and semantics can seem pretty dry or boring, but as you say, there are huge repercussions to them! Definitions and the meaning we ascribe to words can shape the way people see the world, and changing a definition can shift an entire ideological paradigm. Kostaxinos6906 (linked in my post) also talks about this a bit in their post, about how using competition as a framework can change someone into a competitor unnecessarily. As well, Berg’s study relied on using select key words to trigger competitive behaviour, overriding the participant’s common sense. In this way, not only do individual words and their subjective definitions affect people, but also their associations with other words and ideas. It’s pretty interesting!

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  5. Hi Grace, thank you for your essay, not only did you give me something on Tepper that I could connect back to mine own article, but you also bring up a counterpoint to Kohn, which is always good. When you mention that Berg says that even cooperation can break down and that it doesn’t work perfectly, that resonated with me. The word cooperation itself evokes peace and harmony , but we are humans and even when there is no competition between people, there can still be lots of problems. Maybe it is not just the definition of competition we need to agree on but also the word cooperation as well.

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