Two Concepts of Competition

‘Two Concepts of Competition’, Ethics (2022) 133(1): 5-37.

Competition is a key ingredient in the design of political institutions in modern liberal democracies. Democratic elections, the free press, the adversarial legal system, and the market are all examples of political institutions that are supposed to generate desirable social outcomes by utilising some kind of competition (e.g., political, legal, economic).
In this paper I argue that within this long list of competition-based institutions, one can discern two distinct senses in which competition is used as an institutional mechanism. The first, parallel competition, aims to create separate, independent pathways for each competitor wherein she is supposed to do her best to win. The social benefit from this competition is supposed to emerge as a result of the aggregative effect created by the efforts of each competitor. The second, friction competition, is designed to facilitate a clash between competitors, which in turn is supposed to generate a desirable social outcome.
This distinction is important for two reasons. First, for its analytical advantages: it allows us to clarify the difference between competitions in different institutions (e.g., legal competition vs economic competition), and between different perceptions of competition within the same institutions (e.g., different kinds of democratic competition). Second, due to its normative implications. The design of each type of competition leads to different normative requirements concerning the level of equality between competitors and the amount of (negative) freedom the competitors can enjoy. Subsequently, using an undifferentiated concept of competition, thereby applying the wrong concept in a certain context, could undercut the proper functioning of the institutional design.

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