What does a “culture of competition” look like?

Throughout the 20th century, the concept of competition has been viewed with skepticism or even outright hostility. Progressives abhorred “destructive competition” and sought to replace it with government coordination of the economy. John D. Rockefeller even went so far as to say, “Competition is a sin.” But this vision relies on a false understanding.

America — and any country seeking sustainable prosperity — depends on a culture of healthy competition. In a competitive environment, individuals and firms large and small can unleash their creativity, follow their passions and ambitions, and strive to better the lives of others. Healthy competition is based on true fairness, where rewards stem from work and merit rather than political connections. It creates the opportunity for everyone to lift themselves up, including the most vulnerable.

But a “culture of competition” has a more profound meaning. Beyond inspiring individuals to work hard and create opportunity, competition encourages us to be our best selves. A competitive environment doesn’t just force each of us to “beat the other guy”; rather, we strive to be better and to do better, allowing all of us to flourish and creating a thriving, stimulating community. The strengths of others allow us to lift ourselves up, and they help us set goals and dream big. Only in a culture of competition can we each achieve our maximum potential.

But when competition is restricted — as it increasingly is in the American economy today — success is limited to those connected to political power or who already have great wealth. Those with power and resources can fight to keep out those with better ideas but fewer connections, and slowly but surely, envy politics becomes the norm. Innovation, entrepreneurship, invention, and creativity suffer — and we’re all the poorer for it.

Today, America is faced with two choices. In one scenario, we continue to suppress competition, allowing interest groups and lobbyists to fight for special treatment and to squelch solutions that don’t meet their approval. Our economy becomes increasingly tilted toward those with the right connections, and our work ethic erodes as favor-seeking replaces ingenuity and diligence.

But in a more optimistic outcome, we embrace competition in the world of ideas and the marketplace. We break the death grip of entrenched interests on our public schools, our financial markets, our energy industry, our health care system, and many other increasingly inadaptable industries. In this outcome, our economy is fairer and America redoubles its commitment to being a land of opportunity.

The American Enterprise Institute’s “Culture of Competition” project highlights the policies and practices that damage our national dedication to competition and promotes positive alternatives. Through the work of AEI’s scholars and fellows, the project examines barriers to competition in all areas of American life, from the economy to the world of ideas, and seeks to reinvigorate a competitive culture so that everyone can reap the benefits of a fair American economy.