Return to letter
New York Times

June 25, 2000


Competitive States of America 

Microsoft proves it: we're still wrestling with that treasured national ideal.

Photograph from Corbis Bettman

"The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost -- for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. . . . While the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race." -- From "Wealth," by Andrew Carnegie (North American Review, June 1889) 

The ancient Greeks -- and after them, Hollywood -- were clear about what happens to the greatest competitors, and it wasn't pretty. Sure, they vanquish all opposition, but then in Act 2, with no one in sight who might pose a legitimate challenge, they grow fat and complacent. And in Act 3, just when they least expect it. . . . Looking at Bill Gates on television these days -- at his untamed shag, his Redmond casual attire, his benevolent photo ops with school kids and politicians -- you have to wonder: did he ever so much as consider the possibility that he might lose? That the government might win? That he might ever meet a rival whom he couldn't, by pressures subtle or overt, simply crush? 

The standard line on the Microsoft trial holds that the qualities that made Gates such an effective competitor -- for one thing, his belief that Microsoft could meet any challenge -- are the same ones that caused him to lose. He had become so smug that he didn't even bother to sit up straight while delivering videotaped testimony, and that smugness cost him the case. 

This morally charged reading may seem contradictory, but no less so than any other discussion of that great American virtue, competition. It's the ideal on which both justice and commerce are supposedly built, but the Microsoft trial makes it very clear that it's an ideal we view with considerable ambivalence. Do it well, you're a hero. Do it too well, you're breaking the law. 

Microsoft is just one of the many fronts on which the federal government is currently playing out that ambivalence. Sotheby's and Christie's are being prosecuted for alleged price-fixing, Visa and MasterCard for collusion. America Online is being investigated. The American courts and the British courts have combined forces to shelter the human genome, or at least the race to map it, from the dog-eat-dog marketplace. The results of these efforts to make business competition seem fairer (especially to those who do not win) may well set the terms by which fair play is defined for the foreseeable future. 

Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the author of "In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living From Plato to Prozac."

Even sports, where the spirit of unbridled competition ostensibly reigns supreme (thus fueling a thousand pop-business best sellers), are as much about what can't be done in play as what can. For the truly devoted fan, half the fun is arguing with the referee about rule-book minutiae. Which makes sense: if any player were allowed to flout all the rules and simply flatten his opponents, there wouldn't be any suspense, any point in watching at all.

Whatever noble virtues we might extol, in other words, it seems no one actually wants too much competitiveness in business or in life. And on one level or another everyone -- everyone -- wants a handicap. Commercial interests that rail against protectionism abroad demand government support at home. Shoppers take umbrage when someone else gets a special price, yet eagerly seek out private sales. I've seen airline passengers complain vociferously about the disjointed seat prices in the coach cabin, only to accept calmly a complimentary upgrade to executive class as a reward for being the squeaky wheel. On the basketball court once, my brother Steve was so keen to win at 21 that he continued to cheat -- even after I went up for a jump shot, fell and broke my arm. That bully!

In the Microsoft trial, the competition in question is so manifold it's practically fractal. The most successful company in America is trying to either blow away or co-opt its competitors. The government is fighting to establish its dominance over the company. The courts -- and pundits -- are jockeying for the chance to weigh in on a landmark case. And you can bet that Joel Klein, sitting across the aisle from the biggest star of the whole business universe, isn't motivated solely by an oath to uphold the legal code.

You could almost say the competitive drive is hard-wired. Which, of course, it is. We're only here, after all, as a result of an endless genetic competition. Our parents gave us life in something less than a conscious fashion; and they, in turn, were the products of equally nonspecific choices and lucky victories in the generation before them. Genes constantly compete in the great race for perpetuation, and for the time being, human beings rule. We're No. 1! High five! But we can't celebrate for long: we go on competing for the attention of our parents, the approval of our peers, the praise of our teachers, the opportunity from our employers, the favor of our partners, the table in the corner from the matre d'. Available resources are forever scarce, and there's always someone coming up behind you with more drive, more brains, more charm. So it's natural to suspect that she has the unfair advantage we would all prefer to have ourselves. "It's not enough to succeed," Gore Vidal said. "Others must fail."

According to the official credo, Americans like winners. But the gleeful spectatorship that has accompanied Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's Solomonic ruling proves there are limits. Americans love winners, but not those who win so well that they rewrite the terms of competition or bring it to a close altogether. What the company's forced bifurcation might do to this complex national dynamic remains to be seen. And one day stockholders and executives might say it's not enough for one Microsoft to succeed; the other must fail.