George Walford: That Level Playing-Field

Mae West did not say ‘Come up and see me sometime,’ Humphrey Bogart did not say ‘Play it again, Sam,’ Voltaire did not say ‘I disagree with every word you say, but would fight to the death for your right to say it’ (the phrase first appeared in a biography of him published early this century), and George Orwell probably did not say ‘The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.’ Nevertheless, competition does have a way of limiting itself; its strongest supporters are usually politicians not engaged in it. Left to their own devices firms set up cartels, professionals join associations, and working people form trade unions rather than fight each other for jobs. Bernard Shaw remarked that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, Adam Smith noted that people of the same trade seldom gather together, even for social enjoyment, without some arrangement against the public interest resulting, and soldiers in opposing armies have (what politicians regard as) a nasty habit of fraternising. Working people, professionals, firms and soldiers do as a rule pursue their own interests, only a minority putting the common welfare first; it’s just that they seldom find unrestrained competition the best way to get what they want.

Competition stands with honesty, responsibility, loyalty and bravery among the principles which have to be maintained for society to function. Paradoxical as this may sound, it benefits the collectivity rather than the individuals (people, firms, institutions etc.) engaged in it, these often finding co-operation more expedient.

While arguing in favour of competition governments keep themselves carefully isolated from it; government long ago came out victor in the struggle for control of the state apparatus and has no intention of voluntarily risking its position. The people in control may change, but any threat to the dominance enjoyed by the institution gets condemned as disorder, social breakdown or anarchy.

Governments regard competition, like hard work, chastity and frugality, as a very good thing – for other people. Their preference for avoiding it among themselves has recently produced the EC, which maintains a Competition Commissioner to ensure that firms do not grant themselves the same advantages; Karel van Miert has recently taken the post over from Leon Brittan, and he recognises that the job entails a lot more than simply eliminating restrictive practices. The airlines and telecom companies of the USA ‘grew strong on the back of the biggest, best protected market in the world,’ so that now their EC counterparts must be allowed some cosy arrangements among themselves just to maintain that level playing field. Only as an intended second stage will cartels be attacked worldwide; in the meantime state subsidies, for example to steel firms, are to be limited, not abolished. [1]

Maintenance of competition requires careful supervision by an authority powerful enough to override any combination of participants; left uncontrolled it tends to eliminate itself.

1. Financial Times, October 25.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.