What role: Competition vs. Coordination
One of the more interesting dichotomies in complex systems is the tension between competitive processes and cooperative ones. As I argued in Sapient Governance II - Coordination Level whole systems that evolve to a stable steady-state condition are characterized by a preponderance of cooperative sub-systems, or regulated coordination. The human body is as good an example as any. Livers don't compete with hearts under normal circumstances. And new livers don't open shop to compete with the main one. However, I did point out that under stressful conditions, as when there are restrictions on input resources, that some form of regulated competition based on priority needs could ensue. It also turns out that during embryonic and fetal development competition among cells for vital resources plays a big role in shaping the form of the body tissues. But at maturity, competitive processes take a minor role and the body enters a period of regulated coordination and cooperation among cells and tissues. Unless, of course, a cancerous cell breaks the truce.
Competition is hailed in neoclassical economics as the engine of progress. Firms competing with one another in a free market (for customers if not resources) improve their production, their designs, and their service. As a result prices tend to fall for the same level of functionality or functionality increases for the same price. Competition is a good thing for development in the economy just as it is in the development of the body. Or at least it has seemed so.
In fact, in the biological world all development of populations, species, and ecosystems is through competition. Competition is one of the cornerstone bases of evolution. Competition among species for niches and competition between conspecifics for mates and food are at the heart of natural and sexual selection mechanisms. Operating on sometimes small improvements in form or behavior due to chance mutations, a more fit individual will tend to have more offspring and increase the frequency of that particular genetic variant in the gene pool.
Ergo, competition is a good thing. Under the right circumstances.
Notice that these examples pertain to the situation in which the system is in a growth/development phase. When the system is still 'immature' compared with a final steady-state condition competition serves to select the most favorable configurations. Biological evolution, we might expect, will continue to shape newer species until the Ecos as a whole is in some kind of steady-state with respect to the flow of energy. It is most likely unknowable as to when that might be.
With respect to the human population and our cultures, however, it may very well be that we will be forced into a steady-state condition simply because we are going to run out of high-grade fossil energy sources and the likelihood of finding some miracle replacement that can support the over-large population at a level of lifestyle to which some of us have become accustomed is looking pretty small. Renewable alternative sources, like solar and wind, will surely provide a steady-state flow but at a volume significantly lower than we currently enjoy. The implication is that a very much smaller population of humans, living in harmony with the Ecos, at steady-state will be the final mature form of our species and its cultures on this planet.
The idea that a final form of maturity might arise from the rapid contraction of a population actually has a very solid precedence in biology. For example when the mammalian brain is growing in a fetus and neonate far more neurons and synaptic connections are produced than are found in the adult. There is a literal exuberance of growth far beyond what is practical or necessary. What happens then is that synapses and some neurons end up getting pruned because they don't contribute to the success of the brain in conducting the business of behavior or perception (cf Wikipedia article on Neural Darwinism). There is a 'use-it-or-lose-it' rule in synaptic strengthening; if the synapse doesn't actively contribute to a neuron's firing it decays due to being starved of resources and the connection is lost. The strategy of life can be characterized as produce an abundance on a trial and error basis, and then see what works! Evolution and living, growing systems do not have foresight. This strategy, seemingly wasteful, actually works quite well. The wasted resources are actually recycled so the final optimized structure isn't really the result of a wasteful process after all.
So what we are witnessing in the human condition, of overpopulation and what will amount to culling by natural disasters and food shortages (if it comes to that) is really not much different from nature's other examples of over exuberant growth followed by selection of the fittest via competition. Of course, being the 'subjects' of this grand experiment isn't going to be an academic exercise. We can't imagine that synapses suffer from starvation but we can empathize with our fellow humans suffering. And we will feel the fear of being one of the cullees. But in most respects you cannot deny that we are a part of nature and subject to the same laws of nature as everything else. Competition has its downside in this regard.
But in one special regard humans are different from all other systems in the Ecos. We alone have developed a language and culture based social structure. These, as I have argued previously, transcend biology in a very important way. Our ways of organizing are emergent properties of our social brains. Our science allows us to ask and answer questions not even conceivable to our biological cousins. Whatever level of sapience we have evolved allows us to consider options not permitted of the rest of life. We have discovered and understood the relationship between and purposes of competition and cooperation. We could, if we are sapient enough, choose to pursue a process of maturation wherein cooperation becomes the predominant mode of economics.
An economic system based on cooperation and coordination is the end product of evolution and development. Competition has given us two hundred varieties of shampoo. How many do we really need? Competition is thought to drive prices down, but if the true cost of products and services is measured in energy units instead of floating-valued dollars, then prices will be based on rational costs. Drive the energy cost down and you drive the price down. That is a form of continuing development more like learning in the mature brain as opposed to organizing structures in the embryonic brain. It is the only form of development that is sustainable in the long run.
Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that competition as a driver has reached its apex and needs to be phased down and out is the impact it has had on higher education. Universities and colleges compete for students. There isn't much they can do about the single biggest cost item in their budgets — wages of professors and professional staff (heaven forbid the administrators consider cutting their own numbers or paying themselves less!) So they resort to cheapening quality (see the excellent PBS video, "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005)") by hiring part time lecturers (please believe me when I say that many lectures are high quality teachers, but too many are not and the impact of part-time employment on those who otherwise would be is enormous), fancy packaging in the form of sports facilities and reputations for government sponsored research (a prestigious quality), and promotions by having wining sports teams, which includes recruiting players of dubious academic potential, sometimes by illegal means. This competitive environment has had exactly the opposite effect on the cost and quality of higher education than claimed for a competitive-driven market. And since higher education is one of the cornerstones of a progressive, free society, think what impact it is having on this country (USA).
What is the hurdle?
As with greed and profit motive there are two aspects. One is the fact that we live in a culture that lauds competition as a wonderful thing. It is easy to see why. Once upon a time competition was a wonderful thing. So the sentiment hangs on in spite of the fact that we need to be shifting to a coordinated economy. This factor could be changed with the right education, but it is simply not clear where this education will come from. Certainly not the schools and colleges that are themselves locked in the competitive arena.
The other, even more difficult aspect of the belief in competition comes from the low level of sapience in our species to begin with. Recall that sapience comes, in part, from being able to see wholeness, including seeing all parts as being connected in that whole. It also involves a moral sentiment (altruism and empathy) that go beyond the typical in-group/out-group mentality. The latter, an actually good characteristic for Pleistocene man when competition between groups of conspecifics was necessary, is still programmed into our brains and is at the root of so much racism and drives the soccer brawls in Europe. As long as groups have sentiments that they are different and better and see others as different and inferior we will be stuck in competitiveness as the principle mode of endeavor. Right now, look at what is driving our concerns about the level of math and science education in schools. It isn't that we think knowing more science and math is good for students for intrinsic reasons. No it is because we are worried that our country (us) will lose out in the global competitive market (them). As a result we will continue to frantically jam science and math down the throats of all students, turning most of them off on the subjects as a result. So the supposed problem will get worse, not better.
Why do you think competitive sports and so-called reality TV shows are so popular? The average human brain is programmed to thrill at such competitions. It's the reason young men seem so eager to go fight a war. Only a strong control over our limbic system from the prefrontal cortex can subdue these ancient tendencies. And I don't think many people have that wiring, let alone the processing power.
Mankind has long since reached a need to transition from predominantly competition to predominantly coordination mode of living. Competition between neighbors to see who has the biggest house or car, competition between firms for customers and diminishing resources, competition between cities to attract businesses, competition between states for shared resources like water, competition between nations for allegiance (e.g. between Georgia and Russia for South Ossetia) or resources (think US in Iraq for oil), all of these at every level of organization are starting to have more negative consequences than good.
The natives of Easter Island killed themselves through their dogged commitment to their religious and competitive beliefs. They could not change their minds about building those giant heads even as they were felling the last trees. Why? That is part of human nature. Once you believe in the goodness of greed, affluence, competition, and free markets, you will not be likely to change your mind about these either. This is the hurdle I see now. This is another reason I call it sapient governance. Only wisdom will reveal that we need to change our mind set in order to have a workable world that includes mankind. Changing that mind set requires a change in attitudes and understanding of competition and it requires overriding our base human nature. The former might be feasible if enough people who are representative of the latter will come forth to demonstrate this new reality.