Competition Is Essential in Work

Article / Produced by TOW Project
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Competition Gives People the Choice That Empowers Economic Productivity

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Competition occurs whenever there is choice. If buyers have a choice of which products to buy and from whom to buy them, then the sellers are in competition with one another, and so are the buyers. Competition can occur in all forms of human activity—athletic, academic, romantic, and so on—but we will concentrate here on economic competition because of its central role in work.

The need to make choices, and hence the need for competition, is inherent in finitude and would thus be present even in an unfallen humanity. We are finite in space, time, and resources, so we must make choices about what things to use for what purposes. To give a vastly simplified example, you cannot both go to a football match at 8 pm and also stay home and read a book at 8 pm. The football match and the book are in competition for your time and (typically) your money. In a larger sense, everything you might spend your time and resources on is in competition with every other thing you could spend time and resources on. You must choose among them, limited by your total time and resources.

A system in which buyers are free to choose among competing sellers and their products is called a “market economy.” Buyers choose from a range of products, each priced according to what the seller thinks will attract sales. By offering a range of products, and through the rising and lowering of prices, well-structured markets serve people by revealing how many and what kind of various goods and services are desired by what people and under what conditions – information without which we could not organize our work to serve one another. This is not simply because we lack the necessary computational capacity – a problem that might be solved by advances in computing. The only possible method for gathering this information is by measuring what choices people make when they are free to decide. This is precisely what markets do. That is why much of it is actually called “market research.” The information necessary to organize all human economic activity collectively cannot be collected in any other way, because no one has it. Suppose you see a loaf of bread for $1.50 and buy it. Would you have bought it if it had been priced at $1.40? $1? $2? $4? No one knows. Even you don’t know, because you didn’t think about it. The information does not exist and cannot exist apart from actually choosing whether to make a purchase. But having this information – not only for yourself but for every bread customer, and not only for bread but for every product you might have bought instead of bread – would be necessary to collectively organize the production of bread.[1]

God, having infinite knowledge, could presumably command the exactly right production and distribution without needing markets. But unless and until God does so, people must choose the products and services that seem best, given the finite time and resources they possess. As we each offer our products and services to one another, we will inevitably compete with one another to offer the most appealing options.

Competition Has a Place in the Bible

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Engaging in economic competition seems to be permissible in the Bible. The description of the godly woman in Proverbs 31 praises her repeatedly for engaging in economic exchange in competitive markets. She gives generously to those in need (Prov. 31:20) but is also shrewd in purchasing (Prov. 31:13, 14 and 16) and selling (Prov. 31:18, 24 and 28). Her merchandise is profitable (Prov. 31:18) and her household gains wealth (Prov. 31:11) and social standing (Prov. 31:23 and 31). The Hebrew word translated as “profitable” in Proverbs 31:18 refers specifically to profit-producing market transactions.[1] The goods she sells so profitably are recognized as a contribution to the community (Prov. 31:31).

As we have seen, markets are inherently competitive, and Jesus apparently worked in a trade whose goods were sold in a marketplace (Mark 6:3), as did Paul (Acts 18:3) and other biblical figures. Paul speaks of buying in markets (1 Corinthians 10:25) as an ordinary activity we may engage in. We find this reflected in Scripture’s extensive references to buying and selling; consider the regulations of commerce in the Old Testament law (e.g. Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 25) and concern about justice in the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah. 5:27-29 and Ezek. 18:7-13), wisdom literature and poetry (e.g. Psalm 94 and Proverbs 20), and the continuation of these concerns in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 25 and James 4). These regulations show that competition has the potential to hurt people—a point we will return to shortly—but show that God’s word regulates competition rather than abolishing it.

Given the potential benefits of market economics, it may not be surprising that the Bible seems to affirm God’s people engaging in competition. Otherwise, believers could only participate in command economies. By no means does this mean that the Bible prescribes some kind of unbounded, dog-eat-dog, “to the victor belongs the spoils” kind of economic competition. Rather, it suggests that the question “How does God want us to engage in competition?” may yield fruitful answers.