Last night, I watched my New York Mets battle through another game in the post-season. I sat, heart thumping, as the Mets pitchers faced off against a Chicago Cubs lineup full of home run hitters, hitters that could change the tone of the game in the blink of an eye. I reveled in the special sort of anxiety that only baseball provides, the steady tension as pitcher and batter set themselves and the near-instantaneous blast of intensity as the ball hurls towards the catcher’s mitt. After the Mets won and the tension became the emotional release of the win, my thoughts turned to the competition itself, to the idea of winning and losing, to the special affinity we have for sport, for the tribalistic sense that causes us to identify with and root for our teams, and to engage in competition itself.

And to how the idea of winning and losing fits into matters political and economic.

Despite the foolishness exhibited by the politically correct educators who have decided that younger children shouldn’t learn about winning and losing when they play team sports (one of my best friends reports that his school system doesn’t keep score in games that his 8 year old plays), we learn about winning and losing at a very early age. I became a Mets fan at age 5, and the team has had my loyalty ever since. My interest level has waxed and waned, and I’ve certainly been less than consistent in the attention I’ve paid to them, but the idea of abandoning my allegiance seems as alien as a concept as removing a perfectly good organ or limb from my person. This is the norm. From an early age, we find our teams and idolize our favorite players. We wear the hats, the shirts, the jerseys. We buy the gloves and bats with our players’ names on them. We wave giant foam fingers, and we go out to the ballgames and scream our lungs out.

We also compete directly, as individuals or as teams. Competition is in our blood, it extends beyond sports to many aspects of our lives, and it is the great driving force of human progress and innovation. Our parents, coaches, teachers and mentors cultivate, channel and manage that competitive sense, teaching us to pursue it and (hopefully, but not always) to do so in an upright manner.

It’s logical, then, that we tend to look at the world in terms of winners and losers. Employees compete to get jobs and they compete within those jobs for promotions and raises. Employers compete with other employers for employees. Businesses compete with other businesses for customers, singles compete with each other to find dates and mates, neighbors compete with each other with their Christmas light displays every December, and on and on. We compete hoping to win and aware that we might lose.

It may seem paradoxical, then, to realize that the competition inherent in free markets is, at its core, about both sides winning. When a merchant sells a product to a consumer, they engage in a voluntary and mutually beneficial transaction. The consumer acquires a product for a price that satisfies his needs or wants, and the merchant sells a product for a price that satisfies his needs and wants. This is the essence of free trade and free markets, and it explains why they are the greatest driver of human advancement the world has ever created. When both sides win, both sides will continue to participate. Competition can and does create losers, but the winning that it produces far outweighs the individual loss (and can be quite motivating to the loser, who has the liberty and opportunity to try again).

This paradox, this prevalence of win-win in a world where humans are wired to think win-lose, may explain the lack of faith in free markets and the seductive power of those who preach big government. Most of what we do in life is win-win. When we hire a contractor to repave our driveway, we and the contractor both win. When we buy a latte at Starbucks (well, when you do), we win, the employees at that Starbucks location win and Starbucks the company wins. We don’t think of it in those terms, and from time to time we’ll be dissatisfied with our purchases, but in the moment of the transaction, we are getting what we sought to get. Unfortunately, our competitive sense fogs our ability to see the win-win. We filter our daily lives through the win-lose affinity that draws us to spectator sports.

Income inequality is the hot meme among the redistributionists over on the political Left. Politicians like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Bill de Blasio constantly harp on how it’s unfair that some make millions while others barely make enough to get by, and they promise to fix that unfairness. They cast the successful as winners who have beaten down the less successful and turned them into losers. Not only do they ignore the win-win nature of free markets, they actively disparage free markets as exploitive of the poor and as a game “rigged” to keep the winners winning and the losers losing.

That last bit is the howler, because the remedy that these and other liberal politicians propose – big government – is itself the rigger that creates and perpetuates winners and losers. In a free market, two or more companies compete for customers. One may be more successful than the other, perhaps even to the point where the latter goes out of business. At that level, we have a winner and a loser. Expand the field a bit, however, and we find that their competition created wins everywhere else. Consumers win because they get a better product or a cheaper price for the same product. Other companies win because the competition sparks innovation, which leads to greater productivity and thus greater rewards. The economy wins because wealth is being created and used more efficiently.

In a market where the government involves itself, however, the outcome of the competition between our two companies gets skewed. The company that can better avail itself of government force – whether through tax preferences, government assistance, occupational licensing, government-erected barriers to entry, regulation that works in its favor, or any of a myriad other interferences – gains an advantage over its competitor. Unlike free market competition, this sort of competition doesn’t benefit the consumers or the broader market. It masks and excuses inefficiency – you don’t have to provide the best product if you can use government to hobble your competition. It stifles innovation – your competitor’s better mousetrap may take months or years longer to get to market, or may never even get there. It drains productive capital – all those government workers cost money, but don’t create wealth. All those winners created by the free market become losers. The only winners are the companies (and individuals, and identity groups, and lobbying groups, and activist groups) that best leverage government, and all those in government whose livelihoods derive from that leverage. They win at everyone else’s expense.

Unfortunately, we’re not wired to understand the win-win of free markets. We know and embrace winning and losing, and this lets politicians sell us the lie that big government is better for everyone than free markets are. It gives us politicians whose actions harm us even as they tell us how much good they’re doing for us. It creates a system where the well-connected thrive at the greater expense of everyone else. Worst of all, it harms our ability to compete, to try to win. It’s like hiring rules makers and referees who are guaranteed to rig the game against us, and believing them when they tell us they’re doing it for our own good.

Yet we do so anyway. We’re susceptible to the fable that life is zero sum, that every winner means there’s a loser. We’re so inclined to see the world that way that we don’t even realize that government is a negative-sum, that even if life were zero sum, the government would draw its vigorish, its percentage, its take, and it would draw it first. The fact that we have growth is an outcome despite big government, not because of big government. The game is indeed rigged, but the riggers are the very people promising to clean the game up.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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