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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Of Competition
By John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
 
From ‘Political Economy’

I AGREE, then, with the socialist writers in their conception of the form which industrial operations tend to assume in the advance of improvement; and I entirely share their opinion that the time is ripe for commencing this transformation, and that it should by all just and effectual means be aided and encouraged. But while I agree and sympathize with socialists in this practical portion of their aims, I utterly dissent from the most conspicuous and vehement part of their teaching—their declamations against competition. With moral conceptions in many respects far ahead of the existing arrangements of society, they have in general very confused and erroneous notions of its actual working; and one of their greatest errors, as I conceive, is to charge upon competition all the economical evils which at present exist. They forget that wherever competition is not, monopoly is; and that monopoly, in all its forms, is the taxation of the industrious for the support of indolence, if not of plunder. They forget too that with the exception of competition among laborers, all other competition is for the benefit of the laborers, by cheapening the articles they consume; that competition even in the labor market is a source not of low but of high wages, wherever the competition for labor exceeds the competition of labor,—as in America, in the colonies, and in the skilled trades,—and never could be a cause of low wages save by the overstocking of the labor market through the too great numbers of the laborers’ families; while if the supply of laborers is excessive, not even socialism can prevent their remuneration from being low. Besides, if association were universal, there would be no competition between laborer and laborer; and that between association and association would be for the benefit of the consumers,—that is, of the associations, of the industrious classes generally.  1
  I do not pretend that there are no inconveniences in competition, or that the moral objections urged against it by socialist writers, as a source of jealousy and hostility among those engaged in the same occupation, are altogether groundless. But if competition has its evils, it prevents greater evils. As M. Feugueray well says, “The deepest root of the evils and iniquities which fill the industrial world is not competition, but the subjection of labor to capital, and the enormous share which the possessors of the instruments of industry are able to take from the produce…. If competition has great power for evil, it is no less fertile of good, especially in what regards the development of the individual faculties and the success of innovations.”  2
  It is the common error of socialists to overlook the natural indolence of mankind; their tendency to be passive, to be the slaves of habit, to persist indefinitely in a course once chosen. Let them once attain any state of existence which they consider tolerable, and the danger to be apprehended is that they will thenceforth stagnate; will not exert themselves to improve; and by letting their faculties rust, will lose even the energy required to preserve them from deterioration. Competition may not be the best conceivable stimulus, but it is at present a necessary one; and no one can foresee the time when it will not be indispensable to progress. Even confining ourselves to the industrial department,—in which, more than in any other, the majority may be supposed to be competent judges of improvements,—it would be difficult to induce the general assembly of an association to submit to the trouble and inconvenience of altering their habits by adopting some new and promising invention, unless their knowledge of the existence of rival associations made them apprehend that what they would not consent to do, others would, and that they would be left behind in the race.  3
  Instead of looking upon competition as the baneful and anti-social principle which it is held to be by the generality of socialists, I conceive that, even in the present state of society and industry, every restriction of it is an evil, and every extension of it—even if for the time injuriously affecting some class of laborers—is always an ultimate good. To be protected against competition is to be protected in idleness, in mental dullness; to be saved the necessity of being as active and as intelligent as other people: and if it is also to be protected against being underbid for employment by a less highly paid class of laborers, this is only where old custom or local and partial monopoly has placed some particular class of artisans in a privileged position as compared with the rest; and the time has come when the interest of universal improvement is no longer promoted by prolonging the privileges of a few. If the slop-sellers and others of their class have lowered the wages of tailors and some other artisans, by making them an affair of competition instead of custom, so much the better in the end. What is now required is not to bolster up old customs, whereby limited classes of laboring people obtain partial gains which interest them in keeping up the present organization of society, but to introduce new general practices beneficial to all; and there is reason to rejoice at whatever makes the privileged classes of skilled artisans feel that they have the same interests, and depend for their remuneration on the same general causes, and must resort for the improvement of their condition to the same remedies, as the less fortunately circumstanced and comparatively helpless multitude.  4
 
 
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