(Note: The Mackinac Center’s college outreach program,
Students for a Free Economy, in conjunction with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, organized a trip to a Lansing Lugnuts
minor league baseball game on July 31, 2007. The
event was in honor of Milton Friedman’s life work and free-market ideas on
what would have been his 95th birthday. Its theme was how competition
brings about improvements in both markets and baseball. The following is an
essay by one of the attendees.)
Market-friendly economists often stress the role competition plays in giving
people the incentive to work harder and the inspiration to do better. Too often,
however, they neglect the role competition plays in informing the
participants about their performance and in discovering what ways of
doing things are more successful than others.
The purpose of competition in baseball, for instance, is
not merely to incentivize the players to try to be better at the game. Rather,
and more fundamentally, we play or watch competitive sports in order to see who
will win. If we knew who would win before a game and how they would do it, there
would be no point to the game, and it wouldn’t be worth watching. This shows that
part of the purpose is discovering what will happen play by play.
Competition is a process of discovery, experimentation and imitation. Different
teams try their own ideas about the best strategies and techniques. The most
successful ones will tend to outperform others, forcing the competition to
imitate the successful strategies or discover new innovations which will put
them in the lead and raise the bar again.
It was this very process of experimentation and imitation that resulted in the
desegregation of baseball and other professional sports in America. When the
Brooklyn Dodgers came up with the "innovation" of hiring Jackie Robinson, the
first black player in the major leagues, they were breaking with tradition. But
Jackie Robinson’s talent raised the bar of competition. It became clear that
those who were willing to sign the best players around, regardless of race,
would have the competitive edge. Teams had to make the choice between
discriminating based on skin color on the one hand and winning on the other.
Slowly but surely, other teams started to sign talented black players and
eventually talented players from around the globe. Competition tends to select the best ideas and people regardless of entrenched interests and prejudices.
Analogously, economic competition among certain groups discovers who can do the
job best when it counts. Competitors continue to find ways of raising the bar
for their competition, who must then adapt to meet it or make way for someone
else. Just look at the statistics of professional athletes now compared to 100
years ago. The same improvements of quality (and prices) occur over time in a
free, competitive industry.
Some might argue that such experimentation could theoretically be carried out
within a single "cooperative" body, an all-encompassing mega-team, without
actual rivalry and the drive and incentive to win. But it is only
experimentation checked by the actual striving efforts between rival parties
that delivers the results. For instance, would the various teams in the National
League have admitted black players as early as they did had there not been a
real incentive to compete against one another and win?
But even though players on opposing teams compete against one another, it is an
interesting paradigm shift to realize that they also are cooperating with one
another. They are implicitly agreeing to play by the same rules — together. Such
cooperation is often taken for granted. Although players may argue with umpires,
they eventually agree to abide by their calls. When they are judged to be "out,"
they do not obstinately stay on the base, unwilling to move, or break out into a
brawl; they do not ask for special dispensation from the rules in order to
impede a home run hitter from running around the bases. And if any of these
things ever do happen, that’s the point at which true competition has broken
Underlying peaceful competition is peaceful cooperation. The cooperation at a
baseball game is not confined to players on the field. In fact, everyone in the
stadium is cooperating in order to come together to have a peaceful experience.
When you’re there, look down at all of the people sitting peacefully together.
It’s orderly, even if it’s a messy order. They are not orderly because the seats
are all set in rows, but because all the members of the audience are tacitly
agreeing to abide by rules, too. It is inspiring to try to think of all the
rules that they must follow for the event to be as orderly and coordinated as it
is. Have you ever watched a hotdog being passed down a row of strangers to get
from the vendor in the aisle to the guy who just bought it? The cooperation is
amazing. Like the market, a baseball game is a layer cake of competition and
Likewise, underlying the competition in society is a more fundamental system of
cooperation without which the competition could not function. Economic
competition, within the rules of respect for private property and individual
choice, is actually a process of peaceful cooperation among the members of
society that facilitates discovery about how they can best provide for one
another’s needs through the market.
Andrew G. Humphries is a 2007 graduate of St.
John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., and a research intern at the Mackinac Center
for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided the author and the Center are properly cited.
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