Is Competition Good or Bad?

Competition occurs when people or organizations reach for the same prize or goal at the same time. The prize might be a customer, a job, a grade, or an eBay item. When you think about it, there is little in life for which we don't compete. We must compete for nearly everything because nearly every resource on earth is limited, that is, every resource is scarce. Competition is therefore an inevitable result of the existence of scarcity, not a political or economic idea invented by capitalists.

For some, it inspires excellence. For others, it breeds discouragement or greed. As a fundamental part of economics, it affects how many options consumers have, how much goods and services cost, and how much innovation takes place. It creates winners and losers, and whether or not we like it, it is an important factor in a free and growing economy.

Economist Adam Smith visualized possible scenarios for competition in his famous treatise on The Wealth of Nations. If, for instance, vendors do not bring as many goods to market as people demand, the buyers may compete to get the good by offering to pay a higher price. On the reverse, if there are more goods supplied than demanded, the sellers might compete to get rid of their goods by lowering the price. Smith believed that competition generally produced the lowest price; whereas monopoly created the highest. Frederic Bastiat, another economist, said that competition contained the essential character of freedom, because it allowed individuals to make their own choices without coercion.

On the positive side, competition breeds innovation, because as sellers compete for buyers, they may try to make their products better and more attractive. Additionally, competition for government contracts is said to save government money. In education, a worldwide study indicated that market schools – such as private schools – tend to have higher achievement rates than schools run by government monopoly. Others advocate competition as a solution for problems in the health care industry.

Competition also has its dark side. For example, though competition is generally considered a positive incentive to further scientific research, it may actually hinder medical advances by producing contention or rivalry among scientists, rather than cooperation. Some say a highly competitive environment for kids risks hurting them physically and emotionally, and wish to discourage it altogether. In the business world, competition often means that some firms will fail, leaving people without jobs.

Over the years, government has stepped in with rules in the name of protecting competition. The fear is that monopolies or oligopolies (single or limited sellers in a market) will charge prices above the competitive level, and society will suffer because of lesser access to desired products. Some government officials appear to legitimately try to apply anti-trust laws in a way that preserves competition and efficient production. However, others say that instead of maintaining free and open competition, laws such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act have really served to protect smaller, inefficient businesses from the big guy.

At other times, government intentionally protects so-called natural monopolies. For example, in the early years of electricity, it was natural for big power companies to develop economies of scale (or greater efficiency than smaller firms) once they paid their high start-up costs. Firms only survived the subsequent cut-throat competition by consolidating, which resulted in monopolistic power to set high prices. The government stepped in with regulation so it could dictate fair prices. At the same time, this structure set up barriers to entry for other firms by legally banning them from business. It also opened the door for monopolies to "capture" the interest of their regulators in a way that could prove unfair to customers in the end.

Special interests often seek government regulation in the name of protecting the consumer. But while regulations such as licensing may be thought to protect individuals from malpractice, it is often those who are already established in the business that push regulations to keep out competitors. For instance, some states have restricted hairbraiders from starting business unless they gain a full cosmetologist license, which would cost thousands of dollars and many hours of irrelevant instruction. In another case, attorneys in one state hindered outside lawyers from taking their bar exam unless they had attended an American Bar Association law school, regardless of their success at some of the hardest bar exams in the country. Sadly, when special interests lobby for new regulations, small businesses may suffer most.

On a level playing field, competition means failure as well as success. However, even failure teaches powerful, positive lessons, and nudges people to pursue goals they might be more successful at. Competition benefits consumers, the economy, and society in many indispensable ways. Competition for buyers motivates sellers to offer low prices; competition for jobs motivates people to work more productively; and competition for workers motivates employers to treat their employees well. In essence, when people compete to do something, they tend to do it better.

This topic offers a look at the theory and practice of competition and its positive and negative effects on life in a free society.

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"It is no secret that small businesses are losing ground in California. Every neighborhood throughout the state has stores with shuttered windows and doors. Every neighborhood can point to lost jobs and disappearing small businesses. California's attractions appear to be running thin, as its residents can't live on mild weather and beautiful scenery alone."

"Back in 2005, Rainbough Phillips at Distributed Republic had the splendid idea of a Capitalism Appreciation Day. She walked the reader through her day expressing her appreciation for every for-profit...

Competition for scarce resources is the core concept around which all modern economics is built.

Richman presents the case that competition in a free society is how people cooperate with each other without compulsion or the "rule of the jungle."

"What are the consequences for youth who compete and lose?

Carole Ames (1984) looked at the results of several studies on losing in competitive experiences. She found serious consequences for children who fail in competitive situations and events. Youth who do not win exhibit more negative behavior towards themselves, lower levels of satisfaction towards themselves, and more feelings of...

"Jestina Clayton is the type of entrepreneur we should be encouraging if we want to put more Americans back to work. Instead, the state of Utah shut her down. Her offense? To help support her young family while her husband was in school, Jestina turned to a skill she learned growing up in her native Sierra Leone: African-style hairbraiding. But Utah said that braiding required a cosmetology license, which requires 2,000 hours of training at a cosmetology school -- which, in turn, teaches little or nothing about African hairbraiding."

"The Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter helped secure a major economic liberty victory for Essence Farmer and other aspiring natural hairbraiders in Arizona when the state legislature passed in April 2004 a law exempting braiders from the State's cosmetology licensing scheme."

These remarks were written upon the retirement of Israel M. Kirzner, a prominent Austrian economist. Ebeling describes Kirzner's life and his contribution to economics, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship. Ebeling then goes on to elaborate about Kirzner's influence on the study of entrepreneurship, noting that, "In Israel Kirzner’s view, one of the most important reasons for open,...

"Intense training schedules. Pressure to win and be the best. Painful injuries. Given all these factors, it’s not surprising that some athletes simply burn out on their sport. But what is shocking to many in the field are the young ages at which this is increasingly happening -- sometimes as early as 9 or 10.

The scenario often goes something like this: Eager to nurture the next A-Rod...

"Licensing laws protect established attorneys from competition by burdening potential competitors from other states with superfluous and costly entry requirements. These rules limit competition through imposing entry barriers and blocking interstate mobility. Minnesota protects its own lawyers from additional competition by requiring attorneys to attend only law schools accredited by the American Bar Association...."

"In my research on the childhoods of successful women, winning in competition was the most frequently mentioned positive experience. Furthermore, many women described defining moments where they learned from their losing experiences. Winning can be exhilarating and motivating for all children, and all children can learn from losing experiences."

"When it comes to competition, we Americans typically recognize only two legitimate positions: enthusiastic support and qualified support.

The first view holds that the more we immerse our children (and ourselves) in rivalry, the better. Competition builds character and produces excellence. The second stance admits that our society has gotten carried away with the need to be Number One...

The judge in the Microsoft antitrust trial, Thomas Penfield Jackson, recently stated that he 'didn’t see a distinction' between Bill Gates’s Microsoft Corporation and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

"It is disturbingly easy for arguments originally employed on behalf of the free market to be turned against it. In this article I hope to redeem the concept of competition, which perhaps more than any other has been corrupted into the service of the state."

"Should Congress fail to fund the alternate engine, there will be only one type of engine available for a plane--the JSF--that will constitute 90 percent of all U.S. fighters in 2035. Because it is a single-engine plane as opposed to dual-engine, if something goes wrong with the engine, it could lead to a system-wide grounding of every aircraft until the problem is identified and fixed--unless...

The AP History view of the 'robber barons' like John D. Rockefeller is that they monopolized entire industries, forced smaller competitors out of business ... and generally did all of this much to the detriment of the American consumers.

Chart or Graph

A chart showing the dual economy in Japan and how competition drives efficiency and productivity.

Chart shows effect of competition on generic drug prices.

A diagram of market demand in relation to individual firm demand.

A study of worldwide evidence indicated that market schools - such as private schools that can compete on the free market - tend to have significant advantage in the area of achievement over schools run by government monopoly.

Created by G.F. Keller in 1882, this cartoon depicts the octopus-like reach of the railroad industry monopoly.

John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. He retired from Standard Oil in 1897. Look at what happened to the price of oil during the time he ran the company.

When Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone on March 7, 1876, few people realized just how important his new invention would become for American commerce and society in general. America was still in love with the telegraph and saw little immediate use for the telephone.

Analysis Report White Paper

"Overall, as competition intensity increased over time, prices declined. The outlook is for continuing price decreases in average price with average prices of cable, telecom, and emerging broadband technologies tightly clustering at levels well below today's average broadband prices."

"Jarrell (1978) found that electricity prices rose in states that adopted state regulation before 1917, suggesting that regulators were 'captured' by the interests of the regulated electric utilities. An alternative explanation is that state regulation more credibly protected specialized utility assets from regulatory opportunism than did the municipal franchise contracting that preceded it. We test this alternative hypothesis using a panel of data from the U.S. Electrical Censuses of 1902-1937. We find that the shift from municipal to state regulation was associated with a substantial decrease in investment propensity, an outcome strongly supporting the capture hypothesis."

The courts have a proven track record of fashioning balanced remedies for the copyright challenges created by new technologies.

"Would large-scale, free-market reforms improve educational outcomes for American children? This question cannot be reliably answered by looking exclusively at domestic evidence, much less by looking exclusively at existing 'school choice' programs.

In this article, I shall explore two strands of Austrian economics—theories of competition and of entrepreneurship—and their implications for public-choice theory. The first section notes some limitations of applying the neoclassical competitive model to the study of political decision making.

"Economic planners of a country want to allocate scarce resources optimally such that it maximizes overall welfare. Since an economy consists of various economic agents with diverse interests, allocating resources optimally becomes an intricate task. Economic planners have two mutually opposing means to solve this allocation problem: planning versus competition.

"Whatever one's personal interest or objective may be-businessman, sculptor, or preacher — the consequence of pursuing it puts him in competition with all who share that objective. That being the case, preoccuption with promoting competition is at best a diversion of effort which could have been used to protect private property and freedom of contract."

"This paper presents, in non-technical terms, an 'Austrian' view of how a market economy works. The theory is 'Austrian' in its being derived from insights which matured during the course of the century and a quarter history of the Austrian tradition."

This piece suggests that a better way to deal with teacher union problems would be to introduce competition into the teacher union market. As Lieberman continually notes, teachers unions are currently monopolized by the NEA and the AFT. This situation has allowed these two organizations to raise teacher dues and effectively combat any opposing ideologies that might...

Competition increases deontological commitments, deontological commitments towards outgroup members, and donations by productive workers, though it decreases donations by less productive workers.

"A monopoly is an enterprise that is the only seller of a good or service. In the absence of government intervention, a monopoly is free to set any price it chooses and will usually set the price that yields the largest possible profit."

One of the roles of government, debated even among those of a libertarian or small government perspective, is that of regulating monopolies and ensuring competition.

"The U.S. state that has pioneered the open enrollment concept the furthest is Minnesota. And indeed much interest and excitement is being shown there this year because of what is thought to be a crucial new modification. The state has announced that up to $4,000 in state aid will move with each child who transfers from one public school to another."

Since the passage of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, air travelers in the United States have enjoyed lower fares and greater choice in service. Despite the success of domestic liberalization in the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere, international air travel is still heavily regulated, and the U.S. domestic air travel market remains closed to foreign competition.

This PowerPoint Presentation explains the economic theory of perfect competition. It is based on Chapter 11 of David Colander's textbook, Economics.

"The doctrine of 'pure and perfect competition' is a central element both in contemporary economic theory and in the practice of the Anti-Trust Division of the Department of Justice."

"The most frequently asked questions about school choice are: Do public schools respond constructively to competition induced by school choice, by raising their own productivity? Does students’ achievement rise when they attend voucher or charter schools? Do voucher and charter schools end up with a selection of the better students ('cream-skim')?

...

"Unfortunately, the Sherman Act was never intended to protect competition. It was a blatantly protectionist act designed to shield smaller and less efficient businesses from their larger competitors. There never was a golden age of antitrust. The standard account of the origins of antitrust is a myth."

"This study provides a powerful demonstration of the real world impact of increased competition. By presenting six market case studies drawn from a variety of sectors it gives evidence of the type and magnitude of the benefits following market interventions to develop competition and free up the operation of these sectors."

Campaign finance reform usually manages to promote more government regulation of elections, candidates, and the constituents who support them. In turn, this regulation tends to specifically help one group of people more than another, namely, incumbents of political offices....

The political air is now filled with proposals, of which President Reagan's 'New Federalism' is only the most dramatic, to turn various activities of the federal government over, or back, to the states. Among those activities is regulation: environmental regulation in particular, but other sorts as well.

Point of departure for market regulation is that enhancing competition helps maximizing social surplus since consumer discipline stimulates innovativeness, quality improvements, and cost effectiveness. These effects however, can only take place if several conditions are met.

We study the effect of market structure on a personal computer manufacturer’s decision to adopt new technology. This industry is unusual because there exist two horizontally segmented retail markets with different degrees of competition: the IBM-compatible (or PC) platform and the Apple platform.

"Most so-called public utilities have been granted governmental franchise monopolies because they are thought to be 'natural monopolies.'"

Competition among scientists for funding, positions and prestige, among other things, is often seen as a salutary driving force in U.S. science. Its effects on scientists, their work and their relationships are seldom considered.

"The combined effect of those policies was enough to kill telephone competition just as it was gaining momentum. Hopefully, by understanding exactly how those policies encouraged the growth of a telephone monopoly, policymakers can craft more pro-competitive legislation in the future."

The performance of the railroad industry since 1980 provides a vivid illustration of the benefits of regulatory reform. Productivity has leaped upward, rail rates have fallen somewhat in real terms, and the 50-year decline in the railroads' share of traffic has finally come to an end.

"My three sons, ages seven to twelve, suffer from a chronic condition I've heard described by economist John Baden as ironitis—the love of anything made of metal. They are fascinated by cars, trucks, backhoes, tractors and—well, you get the idea. The other day, my middle son suggested that my next car should be a convertible.

Video/Podcast/Media

"Israel Kirzner discusses the Austrian Approach to Competition at the Department of Economics of the University of Colorado on March 6th, 1978."

"The eighth in a series of ten lectures, from 'Fundamentals of Economic Analysis: A Causal-Realist Approach.'"

"This panel will assess American federalism as a competitive institution that offers a marketplace of state regulatory regimes. With the recession impacting some states more heavily than others, it is time to ask whether interstate competition is good for the nation. Should state-by-state approaches to issues such as healthcare, financial regulation, environmental...

The "Free to Choose" video series has had a tremendous impact on many people's perceptions of competition, capitalism, socialism, regulation, and freedom in general. The first version of this series was released in the early 1980s during the Cold War. Back then, the free and prosperous societies of the West and the East stood in stark contrast to the societies behind the Iron Curtain in...

"Cato’s Isabel Santa uses school choice as an example of why competition is better than government-imposed monopolies. The video explains that government schools cost more and deliver less, which is exactly what one might expect when there is an inefficient monopoly structure. The evidence about the school-choice systems in Sweden, Chile, and the Netherlands is particularly impressive."

Milton Friedman explains how competition works in education through the medium of school choice.

"This Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation Economics 101 video succinctly explains why tax competition restrains excessive government since politicians realize that jobs and investment can cross bordes if they get too greedy and impose punitive tax policy."

"This tutorial looks at markets that are deemed to have "perfect competition." This means that there are many players with identical products, no barriers to entry, no advantage for existing players and good pricing information. Few to no real market completely matches this theoretical ideal, but many are close. Even the example we use in this tutorial (the airline industry) isn't quite perfect (you should think about why)."

"Prof. Lynne Kiesling discusses the history of regulating electricity monopolies in America."

Thomas DiLorenzo lectures on the Myth of Natural Monopoly at the 2006 Steven Berger Seminar."

"Federal, state and local agencies, universities, non-profit organizations, prison industries, and other government sponsored and supported entities engage in commercially available activities that result in unfair government competition with private enterprise. This adversely affects the U.S. economy by duplicating activities available from commercial providers, increasing the government...

Reed explains the many flaws with the prevailing theory that Standard Oil was a monopoly or that the company's founder and president, John Rockefeller, was exploitative....

Primary Document

"How do firms allocate their lobbying resources among their political goals? We approach this question using a game-theoretic model that integrates three concepts from the lobbying literature: the distinction between private and collective rents, the level of competition, and the impacts of political institutions. The model demonstrates how rent competition and political institutions affect...

This economic classic is noted for providing us with terms for and expositions of such key economic ideas as the division of labor, "invisible hand," self-interest as a beneficial force, and freedom of trade.

"This Circular establishes Federal policy regarding the performance of commercial activities and implements the statutory requirements of the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998, Public Law 105-270. The Supplement to this Circular sets forth the procedures for determining whether commercial activities should be performed under contract with commercial sources or in-house using...

"The word competition has been thus defined by a French lexicographer: 'The aspiration of two or more persons to the same office, dignity or any other advantage.' This is, indeed, in harmony with its etymological meaning. Two or more individuals aspire at the same time to the same position, to the same dignity, to the same advantage, no matter what; they vie with each other to obtain it; there...

"It would not be easy to defend macroeconomists against the charge that for 40 or 50 years they have investigated competition primarily under assumptions which, if they were actually true, would make competition completely useless and uninteresting. If anyone actually knew everything that economic theory designated as “data,” competition would indeed be a highly wasteful method of securing...

Kirzner delves into competition and the market process, as well as compares critiques of government regulation on competition and the market process from the "neoclassical" paradigm and the "Austrian" paradigm.

Economists and legal scholars around the globe now recognize the benefits of competition to consumers and to the economy as a whole.

"Frédéric Bastiat has said that the Harmonies is a counterpart to Economic Sophisms, and, while the latter pulls down, the Harmonies builds up. Charles Gide and Charles Rist in a standard treatise, A History of Economic Doctrines, have referred to 'the beautiful unity of conception of the Harmonies,' and added, 'we are by no means certain that the...

We know from years of patient refinement that competition insures the achievement of a Pareto optimum under certain hypotheses.

Henry Hazlitt's classic primer outlines a straightforward and accessible portrayal of free-market economics. An unshackled market, Hazlitt says, is the only path to "full production".

"Entrepreneurial discovery is seen as gradually but systematically pushing back the boundaries of sheer ignorance, in this way increasing mutual awareness among market participants and thus, in turn, driving prices, output and input quantities and qualities, toward the values consistent with equilibrium...."

"Generic competition is associated with lower drug prices, with the entry of the second generic competitor being associated with the largest price reduction. We base this conclusion on an analysis of IMS retail sales data for single-ingredient brand name and generic drug products sold in the U.S. from 1999 through 2004."

Mises explained economic phenomena as the outcomes of countless conscious, purposive actions, choices, and preferences of individuals, each of whom was trying as best as he or she could ... to attain ... wants and ... avoid ... consequences.

"If you are looking to acquaint yourself with F.A. Hayek's perspective on economic theory--beyond his business cycle and monetary studies of the interwar years--this is the best source. The collection appeared in 1947, before he moved on toward broader cultural and social investigations. It contains his most profound work on the liberal economic order, and his most penetrating reflections on...

"For children who are not into organized team sports, having fun and staying active can be a challenge. But, with the help of a cool new movement called VERB.™ It's what you do., it’s as easy as a hop, a skip and a jump."

Man, Economy and the State provides a sweeping presentation of Austrian economic theory, a reconstruction of many aspects of that theory, a rigorous criticism of alternative schools, and an inspiring look at a science of liberty that concerns nearly everything and should concern everyone.

"Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak. Today, I want to step back from details about the practice of antitrust enforcement and focus instead on the policy and the economics of what United States antitrust enforcement is trying to achieve. Therefore, I will begin with the policy and economics in the abstract, then I will apply these principles to the day-to-day of the Antitrust Division's enforcement practices."

"John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) originally wrote the Principles of Political Economy, with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy very quickly, having studied economics under the rigorous tutelage of his father, James, since his youth." Book II specifically speaks about the issues involved with the distribution of wealth and property.

"The Sherman Act authorized the Federal Government to institute proceedings against trusts in order to dissolve them. Any combination 'in the form of trust or otherwise that was in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations' was declared illegal. Persons forming such combinations were subject to fines of $5,000 and a year in jail. Individuals and companies...

Kirzner looks at a few different definitions of competition and how those definitions play out within the confines of antitrust laws.

"Good afternoon. This is my first trip to Japan, and I am delighted both to visit your beautiful country and to have an opportunity to speak with you today about my favorite topic: competition. I should make clear at the outset that I am an unabashed advocate for competition. I believe, as do my colleagues at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, that sound competition policy and strong competition law enforcement are critical to the efficient operation of free markets and to economic growth."

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