My father forwarded me a piece of e-mail from a relative of mine who (if memory serves) is a Green, albiet a smart one. He invited comments, so here are some.

His mail (minus a post-script on which I am not commenting):


From: [Elided]
Reply-To: [Elided]
Date: Mon, 26 Apr 2004 11:52:58 -0700
Subject: Fundamentals (2)

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” –David Sarnoff, RCA

Scrutiny of CEO Sarnoff’s comment points us toward a wealth of directly and indirectly related assumptions; for instance:

Competition is the best, perhaps only, route to quality products.

Products are a vital goal of life. (In the extreme, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”)

Someone has to win, come out on top . . . or, more broadly, hierarchy is a fact of life, and properly so.

Economics can and should be atomistic and keep factors like
interdependency supplementary at most.

Ours is more or less a competitive, self-regulating market economy, something democratic and moral; the ideal is a society embedded in The Market and its Invisible Hand.

Your thoughts welcomed.

[Name elided.]

My thoughts:

  • “Competition is the best, perhaps only, route to quality products.” This simply does not follow from what Sarnoff said. The fact that X leads to Y does not mean that Z cannot also lead to Y.
  • “Products are a vital goal of life.” This seems very indirectly related at best. The closest relationship I can come up with is that for Sarnoff to be thinking at all about what makes for good products carries with it an assumption that good products are something we should be concerned about. Given the extent to which human life and flourishing are enhanced by material wealth, this is certainly a defensible claim. Note that I am not claiming that making more widgets is always an unalloyed good; I am making the weaker claim that a major lack of good products (or material wealth more broadly) is a bad thing. Food is a product. Clothing is a product. Housing is a product. And obtaining and using such things is and should be a vital goal of life.
  • “Someone has to win / hierarchy is a fact of life.” With respect to product quality, hierarchy *is* a fact of life. We judge the quality of a product based on how well it satisfies the purposes for which it was created. It is an unavoidable fact that some products satisfy their purposes better than others; this follows from the fact that reality is complicated and filled with tradeoffs. Thus, given a purpose, products can always be arranged in a hierarchy. More broadly, hierarchy follows from the fact that values are hierarchical. I have a lot of goals in my life, but because I am a being with a finite and determinate nature I can’t work on achieving all of them at the same time. Consequently I have to choose what to do at any given time, and that requires prioritization. In other words, hierarchy.
  • “Economics can and should be atomistic.” I’ve always thought this was silly. Markets are fundamentally cooperative. They are the sum of individual voluntary exchanges; each exchange is motivated by the fact that each person involved values what he receives more than what he gives as part of the transaction. In other words, each exchange is an act of cooperation. The competition that occurs in markets is competition over who gets to cooperate with whom.

The broader question about what sort of society is ideal and why is far too complex to address in this context. I will note only that Sarnoff’s specific quote doesn’t necessarily imply that a society based on competition is ideal; even stipulating that his observation is correct the conclusion depends on the relative weight one gives to quality in products versus quality in people.

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