Competition Can Hurt People and Societies

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Although competition underlies economic choice and its many benefits, competition also lies behind many ills that befall individuals and society. The cause is not competition, per se, but sin entering the realm of competition. One of the primary effects of sin is to cause people to think, foolishly, that their own best interests are in fundamental conflict with their neighbors’ (James 4:1-12). This causes us to compete by trying to harm our competitors—and the people our work is meant to serve—rather than by trying to improve our products. A company may use false advertising to denigrate a competitor. An employee may spread rumors about a rival for promotion. A consultant may bill for more hours than they actually spent on the client’s account.

The Mosaic laws oppose this kind of sin by protecting property rights (Deuteronomy 24:10-15), requiring diligent work (Exodus 20:9) and punishing fraud (Deut. 19:14 and 25:13-16). By contrast, throughout the Old Testament histories and prophetic literature, wicked kings are denounced for accumulating wealth through political appropriation and outright theft (e.g., 1 Kings 21:1-29 and Micah 6:9-16). Greed and tightfistedness, of course, are denounced regardless of context – a theme that is taken up as a central focus in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 12:13-21)–but economic competition, per se, is not identified in any special way as unjust.[1]

Scripture leaves no room for naiveté about the dangers of competition. Consider three passages – from many others that could be selected:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor's boundary marker.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deuteronomy 27:17-19)

Here we see three of the largest among the many temptations created by economic competition:

  • The temptation of selfishness, making our own interests more important to us than the interests of others
  • The temptation of envy, judging our own well-being by comparison with the well-being of others
  • The temptation of greed, breaking the rules of fair play to extract wealth and advantage from others through injustice

These evils are too familiar to need much explanation. They are a matter of daily experience. In a fallen world, we know that people will in fact sometimes yield to these temptations. Many will yield frequently and habitually, creating organized systems of evil. These organized systems of evil are what Scripture often refers to as “the world.” The Lord is at work in the church to empower us for godliness in the face of temptations, and even among the ungodly his grace restrains evil (Romans 2:14-15). However, it is insufficient simply to warn that these temptations exist. We must be aware of the full scope of the fall and the evil of the world, and make our plans accordingly (Ephesians 6:12; 1 John 2:15-16). We require something more than good intentions to restrain ourselves from the temptations toward evil in economic competition.

Competition that takes place across the boundaries of nations and people-groups, and the ethical questions it raises, becomes far more complex with globalization. For example, low tariffs generally increase the economic opportunities for workers in poorer countries, while at the same time tending to displace workers in wealthier ones. We hardly have space here to canvass all the specific questions being raised in our time concerning migration, trade restrictions, outsourcing, etc. We can only note that Scripture commends global goodwill (e.g. Leviticus 24:22) and assistance (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10) and also affirms the need for particular communities to cohere in an orderly way (e.g. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). It is in the tension between global goodwill and particular coherence that most of these ethical tensions reside. Ideally, we might hope to assess such tradeoffs from a neutral point of view, but in reality, we always cohere more closely to some groups than to others.

Another vital ethical concern in Scripture is to make a place for those who lose in economic competition, or who cannot compete at all due to incapacity for work. The Old Testament gleaning laws provide a beautiful example of ensuring that the economy always provides opportunity for those who are economically struggling. A portion of agricultural product must be left in the field for poor people to gather, elegantly combining a requirement that the wealthy be generous and a requirement that the poor support themselves through their own work (Leviticus 19:9, Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The system leads to an especially lovely outcome in the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 2). Finding comparable ways to combine these two imperatives in contemporary economic systems is a continuing challenge to which the people of God should diligently apply themselves. Of course, Scripture commands that those who are unable to work be generously cared for. Primary responsibility for this rests in the household, in accordance with God’s concern for the integrity of the family (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:8); but it is also a general duty, and the church in particular has a responsibility to do what it can to take the lead (e.g. 1 John 3:17).            

See Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, InterVarsity Press, 1999.