COMPETITION CAN GET A BAD RAP. It is often blamed for growing inequality and predatory behavior and for making it impossible for the little guy to get ahead. It’s seen as encouraging us to be unnecessarily adversarial and brutal. Some consider it the enemy of cooperation. In my view, these criticisms are misguided. I believe that competition is the most important philosophical advance of the United States, and we must better understand and protect it.
When competition works the way it’s supposed to, people love it. Think of a sports event: No one wants it to be noncompetitive. Even if you love your Red Sox, you don’t want the Yankees’ bus to break down on the way to the game. You want the Yankees to show up with their absolute best and get beaten, fair and square. But “fair and square” requires clear rules, an umpire who calls strikes and balls the same for both teams, and teams that accept the final score—whether they like it or not. For competition in sports (or any other area of life) to work, you need fair play, agreed-upon rules, and voluntary cooperation.
“True competition is the secret to a free society that respects differences, ensures the right to dissent, and creates the conditions for progress through learning. Unfortunately, the competition of ideas is currently under threat.”
Consider competition in another part of our lives: politics. Democracy is a form of political competition. It can’t function when there are uncontested elections or cheating. We make fun of elections in countries where the Dear Leader gets 98 percent of the vote unopposed, ballot boxes are stuffed, and if you try to run against the leader, you’ll go to jail (or worse). We’re grateful to live in a multiparty democracy where candidates truly compete (which means, by the way, that we’re grateful for the people who disagree with us politically).
Today, there is a particular need for healthy competition in the world of ideas. In an idea-based economy, true competition is the secret to a free society that respects differences, ensures the right to dissent, and creates the conditions for progress through learning. Unfortunately, the competition of ideas is currently under threat. In some circles, there is a culture of “deplatforming” and “canceling”—of shutting down the competition of ideas instead of trying to win it. Acceptable discourse is narrowed, protest is squashed, opposing views are silenced, and contrary opinions are painted as evil or ignorant. This behavior afflicts everyone—progressives, conservatives, and centrists alike—because it weakens us: It dulls our ability to argue, makes us less likely to see our mistakes, and renders us less tolerant of others. All of us, no matter what our point of view, need to stand up and fight for our right to disagree, and for the right of people to disagree with us.
Of course, there are some bad actors out there with bad ideas. The answer to their ideas is more speech, not less. And in truth, whether they agree with us or not, the majority of people in the public sphere aim to make the country better. While we will—and should—disagree over how to achieve prosperity and happiness and secure our freedoms, we must maintain a shared commitment to being able to disagree per se.
Ideas are the currency of progress, and Harvard is one of the most important idea factories in the world. At the Kennedy School we are committed to the competition of ideas and free speech. We will not allow deplatforming or canceling. We’ve put in place school behavioral norms that say: You can peacefully protest all you want, because that is a form of participation in the competition of ideas. But you can’t shut down that competition and take away someone else’s voice.
Why does this commitment matter? Because, although the Kennedy School can’t improve the national discourse by itself, we can model the behavior we know our nation and the world need, and send forth our graduates—the leaders of the future—armed with these values.
Arthur Brooks is professor of the practice of public leadership. Previously, he served for 10 years as president of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.