Discussion: A Culture without Competition

The story of Western ascendancy demonstrates how the West has competition to thank for its dominance. Could a culture/society thrive without competition as its underlying dynamic? Discuss.

“China’s failure to exploit its advantages left the path of overseas expansion wide open for the West. When the new emperor called home Zheng-he’s mighty navy, he virtually guaranteed that it would be the West’s version of civilization that would sweep the globe.” — Niall Ferguson

Timeline: China and the West 1368-1842

What are the killer apps?

  1. Unlike some, I believe that it’s within human reach to live among others in a relationship that is not essentially competitive. The reality of the present (and the past) is that a non-competitive culture will typically be seen by surrounding forces as somehow lacking and then will face fallaciously justified destruction.

    • The non-competitiveness of China was imposed on the people by the government, because a competitive society would eventually threaten the policies of the central government. To this end, they supressed private commerce, which is inherently competitive and messy. They designed the examination system based on old moral text that ensures upward total brain wash for those who succeeded.

      In China, the fear of private business did not start with Communism. It was always there. Today, private businesses are stronger and messier than ever, which is very uncomfortable for most Chinese people.

      Would the government continue to guide people towards a strong and competitive nation? Otherwise, the West may get the “collapse” it has been praying for with increasing piety.

    • Competition simply means having a system that allows good ideas and products to prosper and bad ones to fall by the way side. It does not mean people have to be driven by avarice and arrogance. Such human failings are unavoidable regardless of the system. However, a free enterprise system allows people to buy things they like and reject what they do not. One can argue about the scope of government regulation of free enterprise; however we must not loose sight of the fact that the principle of free trade, voluntary commerce etc. should be highly valued. All regulations should be implemented with caution because the failings of central planning are so well demonstrated.

  2. Just as an animal needs to be genetically competitive to survive, a civilization needs to be competitive on its present’s terms… so no, I don’t think an uncompetitive society can thrive. “Natural selection” on the social level will lead it to extinction.

    • “needs to be genetically competitive to survive”

      First, organisms needs to be adaptive not ‘competitive’ to survive, Being competitive might be even deadly in certain circumstances.

      Second, you need to be very very very careful when you apply a principle of a certain scientific discipline (biology) to another discipline.

      • Biological determinism doesn’t necessarily translate well in explaining choice and deliberative behavior. There are numerous species that do not naturally exhibit competitive behavior or a natural willingness to do harm. Lion cubs must be taught to hunt and kill while the nomadic San people don’t feel any particular need to compete tribe to tribe and often provide assistance to one another in finding food and water. Adaptation is quite often more valuable than pure competition.

  3. Ferguson also stresses the importance of competition later in the program, when he notes that when the Ottoman Turks were ascending, they used a merit system for the civil service. Later, the service was opened to Turks, merit abandoned, corruption flourished, and the empire declined. The US once had merit as the basis for advancement in its civil service and in industry. The merit system, however, was abandoned as affirmative action preferences were awarded to pet groups, while better qualified candidates experienced the negative action of being white males. Merit has been abandoned in the US for 50 years. Instead of hiring the best, one is hired because they are this minority or that. No wonder America is in decline. No wonder other nations may rise to dominate the 21st century.

    • I think there are greater impediments to the merit system than affirmative action. In fact it’s impact may be infinitesimal when compared to the problems of predatory capitalism or financialization of our economy . I gave up a seat at medical school to an native American. Affirmative actions has its problems but looking at the big picture I don’t think it’s a factor. BTW who gave America a mandate to dominate into and past the 21st century? Remember when America had a middle class and an upper class? National bankruptcy moral and monetary, uninvolved society.
      USA, dined and ditched;
      Fox reports “poor is the new rich”.

      But if you wanna blame it on those blacks feel free.

      • I agree completely that the biggest impediments to the merit system in western cultures are the greed and corruption associated with predatory capitalism. We (humanity) are stronger when we work together to solve the problems we face than when we focus only on “what’s in it for me”. Time for us to start thinking about how we can create and more equitably share a bigger pie rather than fighting, backstabbing, stealing and killing to control more of the existing pie.

    • Right, more racist nonsense. All of America’s problems can be traced back to Affirmative Action. It’s all those “unqualified” blacks getting jobs they don’t deserve. Because when a white person gets a job it’s always because of merit. Never mind that the biggest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are white women. Why let facts get in the way of racist ideology.

    • Actually Ottoman example would lead to the exact opposite conclusion.

      At the beginning the civil service was reserved for only the minorities (affirmative action) of the Empire because non-Turks could not pose any threat to the Ottoman dynasty. It was not only the civil servants but also the merchants too. The Ottoman dynasty would not allow Turkish merchants to gain too much power therefore would only use minorities as the imperial merchants.

    • The US never really had a merit system. It was, and is, more about “who you know” (networking) than about “what you know” (education and experience). And affirmative action, for all its flaws, replaced a policy of blatant discrimination–how was that a merit system?

  4. The comments of “Hugh” provide a glowing example of how Ferguson’s hackery and BS ahistory appeal to racists in both the US and Europe. The US is failing because of affirmative action….Wait! didn’t Ferguson claim that segregation had to do with the rise of US prosperity? He did…but slavery had EVERYTHING to do with it.

    • If slavery had everything to do with it, why did not the other slave areas prosper? North Africans raided Italy, France, Spain, even on occasion up to Iceland, taking slaves. The sub-Saharan Africans sold to the New World had been slaves in the Old. It is America that sent ships to Tripoli to end the Arab piracy and taking slaves of Western seamen.
      Merit was once part of the American system. The Left elite used affirmative action to destroy it. The Left elite knows it will cause the destruction of America and the West; but the Left elite hates the West, and is overjoyed to see our demise. Recall the chant at Stanford, “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Western Civ. has got to go.”

      • Did Rush 1imbur6h advertise this show on his radio station? How did these whit3 supr3macists like Hugh end up on PB$ watching this show?

        Anyway, it doesn’t matter how much the L3ft 31ite hates AmeriKKKa, pretty soon, the descendents of slaves and the Re-c0nquist4dors will overwhelm the original sinn3rs and they themselves will be put into a new type of ens1avem3nt (their minds are already ens1aved by the f3ar industry to strip away their rights).

      • Hugh,
        It was only in the Americas that slave labour was made an integral part of an industrial machine, i.e., cotton and tobacco production. One a necessity and the other highly addicitive, both based on a system of ridiculously cheap imported labour.

        To suggest that slavery did not contribute to the early success of the Atlantic societies is both disingenuous and irresponsible.

    • Ferguson argues that from the very beginning the English system established in North America recognized the ownership of slaves part and parcel with the ownership of land. Locke even makes it a part of the governing system of Carolina in the 1600s. Ferguson then goes on to state that even after the end of the Civil War and the supposed end of slavery (we won’t go into the use of forced labor as slavery by proxy) we see the continued belief by many Americans that we owed our prosperity to the dividing line between whites and blacks. This lasted for well over 100 years. Ferguson calls this claim utter nonsense. American prosperity and stability was based on the British model of widely distributed property ownership and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the elites and authoritarian rule to make sure that the power and wealth did not change hands.

    • Only children or villains possess infinite demand. Moderation in all aspects of life is the first step to cooperation. There is plenty left unsaid.

  5. Again competition of the fittest misinterpreted. The fittest are the most adaptable in nature not necessarily the strongest or the biggest. Civilizations arise though internal organization that adapts to circumstances and then expand. At a tipping point they expand beyond their means to organize (meaning they become too big to govern) effectively and so become reactionary and rigid in their ethos and structure which is the cause of their fall. Ancient China did not exploit its adavantages that is true but then became rigid and too big to manage and so became vulnerable to an aggressive competitor. The six reasons or virtues that Niall Ferguson extols are but a sanatized version of “White Man’s Burden”-utter nonesense and a justification for ethical imperialism. In the world of economics; Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the same fundamental error-they under estimated the enormous power of human greed. Human beings are not philanthropic by nature and cannot be dictated to be-the dictatorship of the proletariat; nor is their any invisible hand ameliorating the production and distribution of wealth (those things necessarty to support life)through mutual self interest. Again, as in nature so in human culture-evolution and entropy rule. Civilizations rise and they will fall not through any particular valuative hierarchy of virtues but through expansion beyond their capacity to organize and their responsive rigidity makes them unable to adapt and they will fall or disorganize.

  6. This competition theory is complete B$. Before there were empires, most places lived in small tribal societies that competed with each other. Warring/competing tribes in Africa, North, Central and South America. From there arose some of the regional powers like Incas, Aztecs, but they were still small regional power, plus there were plenty of small tribal groups. So is Ferguson’s reasoning that competitive europe was able to take over inflexible China, but then what about the small competitive tribes all over Africa/Asia/Americas? Weren’t they even easier to steamroll through?

  7. Wow. I’m speechless at how reductive, probagandistic, unnecessarily offensive this program is to almost anyone who is not white Anglo Saxon Protestant. I agree with the other commenter who mentions rush limbaugh. There are no snide implications here. Ferguson outright says calls every non-wasp dumb, lazy, and culturally predestined to be subjects of the west. Some of his assertions are laughable – call the soviets evil or what you will, but saying that a country who launched Sputnik couldn’t figure out how to produce denim??? Or the Chinese who invented clock mechanism couldn’t fix English clocks when they were broken?? Who is this program made for exactly. I’m so disappointed in PBS, never in my 15 years of supporting and viewing all sorts of public programming have I watched something that made me angry, disgusted, and personally offended.

    • I felt the same way. I was particularly appalled when he contrasted North America, where everyone could own land, with South America, where the Indians were made to work the land and mines, but couldn’t own it. Maybe doesn’t know there were Indians in North America, too, and far from being given land, they were kicked off of it. I think it’s fine for PBS to present differing points of view, but this should at least have been followed up with some counter-balance, perhaps a panel of historians to present varying reactions.

      • No, no, that is why we have this venue. We want to hear from people like you with your opinions too. That is why it is here.

      • And what percentage of the television audience is here discussing it, Iris? The reality is, even in this electronic age, a minority of viewers tend to go to an associated web page to read different perspectives on a program. It’s like a newspaper printing one side of a story, and allowing people to write letters to the editor. Which do you s’pose has more visibility?

      • There were actually far less Indians in North America and most died of disease. Conflicts and assimilation with native populations simply was less of a factor in North America.

  8. I think it is pretty clear to the level of decadence in the west right now, it just imitates what happened in Rome and Greece.
    It is all about me, me, me. Kids with no values or morals raised by the internet. No discipline and the time-out cultures. Parents that want to be friends, the cult of celebrities and trash tv. Greed everywhere. If the Chinese do not burn out becasue of the same hedonism they might be able to pass the west if they are able to maintain some sort of discipline that the west lost a while ago

  9. The only thing missing from this series was the phrase ‘Once upon a time’. While I applaud the desire to investigate the success of Western Civilization it strikes me as extremely disingenuous not to explore alternative explanations for the West’s accumulation of wealth over the past 200 years. In my opinon the true “killer apps’ were cheap labor and cheap energy combined with ruthlessness, arrogance and hypocrisy. Now that the era of cheap labor and cheap energy are coming to an end we will see just how efficacious American exceptionalism really is.

  10. Sorry if it may be late in the thread to address Hugh but the meritocracy is being destroyed by the end of the inheritance tax. If you think for a nano-second that having racial, ethnic or gender “goals” in hiring, education and government contracts can overwhelm the cumulative effects effects of decades of family wealth then you have more than white man’s burden you have white man’s disease. If really believe in advancement based on merit then you would have no problem with everyone starting on something approaching an equal footing. This means taxing the rich to subsidize opportunities for the underprivileged. The same is true for competition: the first thing the winners do is insulate themselves from competition: there is no competition without regulation and anti-trust. You might think about this at your next tea party.

  11. I have trouble believing people in non-Western cultures weren’t competing with each other. Some of the “killer apps” make sense but not this one.

    • Obviously competition is valued in capitalist societies and severely curbed in socialist or traditional societies with strong governments. So yes, other people had competitive instincts, but no they tended not be be rewarded or allowed to flourish.

  12. Niall, my hat is off to you for an intriguing and comprehensive perspective on Western civilization and the spread of apps to the East, Middle East and the world.

    I would not change a thing. I think you made this expose exciting, relavant and thought provoking. Job well done…..

    Thank you!


  13. Mr. Ferguson popular narrative is a fresh perspective on the history of the last 100 years. It is so seldom a historian with economic and social bents gets a stage, and they never disappoint.

    In 1968 I was a freshman in engineering at a US university. I got off put by rock n roll, the peace movement, hippies, the Vietnam war, the Chicago 8, and an Econ 101 professor from Czechoslovakia who gave us the straight scoop on why we didn’t really need to fear the USSR. Well, of course, the Econ professor got it right, rock n roll went its way, we lost the Vietnam War, and most of the Chicago 8 sold out.

    Best program since that guy who told us all what would happen if we gave up technology, we’d get to drive a horse and plow, again. I feel more hope going forward into the future cause new, better ideas do win out than I have in the last 10 years of terrorists, US wars, and financial fiascoes.

  14. Only a myopic misapprehension of evolutionary science would lead to the conclusion that competition is the sine qua non of a species’ “success.” In fact, cooperation is an essential survival factor on which the future of humankind is deeply dependent.

    Entertaining and charismatic as Mr. Ferguson certainly is, his globetrotting propagandizing paean to capitalism fails to persuade. What is more, he neglects to address in any depth such timely and pressing issues as income inequality and its subversion of democracy; the adverse cultural impacts of for-profit healthcare and consumerism; and the long-term consequences of a work ethic based on delusional religiosity.

  15. The free movement of people, goods, and ideas is the real killer app here. Societies that allow and facilitate this do better than societies that discourage or disallow this. The Chinese prohibited people from building ships, sailing on them, and trading goods. The Ottomans prohibited the free exchange of scientific research. The Western societies were far from perfectly ideal in this regard, but at least they allowed quite a bit more free movement of people, goods, and ideas. That is why they ended up doing better than the Chinese and the Turks.

    I’m not the fan of Western colonialism/imperialism that Dr. Ferguson apparently is, though. It is one thing to trade with peoples of other lands, but it is quite another thing to take them over and try to run their countries in your own behalf. I am not at all convinced that the Western colonial era ended up being nearly as beneficial for the colonial powers themselves as Dr. Ferguson suggests. Is it not more likely that whatever economic gains they experienced through trade with their colonies would have happened anyway, if they had just traded with them as independent trading partners? Colonialism ended up being largely a drain for the colonial powers, and they are for the most part better off now to be rid of the burdens of defending and administering these far-flung territories.

    • what kind of western imperialist view is that? You think China was the size of England and it kept to itself? It is a vast territory where different people traded with each other. Plus, have you seen the people in Southeast Asia? Why do they look chinese or have a chinese/Polynesian mix look? The chinese freely moved there and traded with them for a long long time. Just because this BS artist says China was a hermit society doesn’t make it a fact.

  16. Great show!

    The Chinese built a huge fleet and put it to the sea on an essentially “non-profit” expedition. One of the goals is to seek out medicine that can bring perpetual life to the emperor. Its cost could not be justified by the country. So when the term limit came to the Emperor (dead), it was scrapped with prejudice.

    We can say it was short sighted, but a similar set of conditions reincarnate themselves today w/r/t space travel and other money costing programs without a clear financial return.

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