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The Cult of Competitiveness

James Poulos makes an important argument in Vice, that political elites have become so obsessed with economic growth that “Not only does our anxiety push us to become the kind of people least capable of launching our own personal growth plans, it encourages us to ignore the growing number of urgent issues that have nothing to do with the size of our per-capita GDP.”

To be sure, economic growth is important, and provides many benefits, including but not limited to maintaining domestic tranquility, securing our social order, improving the material living standards of almost all Americans (even if at divergent rates) and relieving us of many anxieties and burdens. Poulos doesn’t dispute the benefits of economic growth, but rather points out how an obsession with it can undermine and spoil the very things we are or should be seeking. You should read the full piece here.

There is a complementary obsession to the one he points out, though, one which interacts with the growth obsession to undermine many of the most important discussions and considerations we should be undertaking. It is the competitiveness obsession. In fact, if there is any word that runs close to “growth” as a dominant policy topic, it is its cousin “competitiveness.” Our nation needs to be more competitive with China and India on a global scale of economies and war. Our companies must be more competitive to create jobs. Our workers must be more competitive, to keep those jobs. Our schools must be more competitive in math and science, and our children must be more competitive, because haven’t you seen how long the Chinese lock their kids up in schools? When not competing with the Chinese, our kids need to compete with their peers to (for the most egregious) get into the most competitive kindergartens and grade schools that will feed them into the most competitive colleges, and graduate programs, so that they can get the most competitive internships and entry level positions at the most competitive firms. Along the way hopefully they will meet an equally competitive spouse, so that their children can start off with a competitive genome. Because you never want to let your child “fall behind,” least of all in the womb. How would they ever catch up from that? They would be doomed, or at the least screwed.

To which Poulos has a welcome reminder: “None of us are doomed. Nobody is screwed. Sure, your life might take some weird, sometimes even painful turns. You, like millions upon millions of us since the dawn of man, might experience heartache, disappointment, and tragedy.”

But the most important things in life, the most vital and electric things that enrich the human experience into something greater than anything the most competitive of Darwin’s finches could hope for, are not to be found in competition. Love and companionship, in spite of and through hardship, will not be acquired through a sperm bank sorted by SAT score. The terror and the tenderness of parental love will not be enhanced by private schools charging Ivy-League tuition. The ecstasy and the groundedness of religious devotion cannot be obtained at the expense of another. In fact, each of these can only be obtained by looking beyond the personal immediacy of competition to recognizing ourselves as in relationship, embedded in community.

It is just this community that the competitiveness cult threatens, by driving us to instrumentalize ourselves and our lives. This is perhaps made most plain in the absurdity of the conventional college admissions process, where the early education in civil society and self governance that clubs of interest and service once provided high schoolers has been transformed by their status as mandatory resumé fodder. The building of relationships can turn into “networking,” particularly in DC, where business cards are often accompanied by sheepish-to-shameful grins testifying to the mixed motives of “staying in touch.” There are reasons for this, and people feel a genuine anxiety about keeping their head above water, in many ways driven by the increasing instability of our modern times. That does not diminish, but rather it enhances, the value of Poulos’ imperative: “Let go of our sense of dependence on plans.” What we can compete for comprises only a small portion of our human goods.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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