Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Culture of Caring Or Culture of Competition

Caring and competing are not the same thing. They do not involve the same value system. A culture that values competition over caring is not the same as a culture that values caring over competition.

Most cultures have both competition and caring. Some confer status according to the results of competitive striving. Others confer status according to the quantity of compassion.

In competition-based cultures greater status is granted to military leaders and their civilian counterparts, those who succeed in business or sports. In a caring-based culture greater status is granted to saints, to teachers, to environmentalists, and to others who sacrifice their material well-being to care for the sick, the indigent, and the vulnerable.

Great competitors do not, by definition, care about whether or not they are hurting the feelings of their opponents. If they want to win, they know that, in a competition, someone else is going to lose. If you worry about your opponent's feelings, you are not going to function well as a competitor.

Those who are great at caring want to have as little as possible to do with the competitive culture. Exception made for those who try to induce those who have gained fortunes by competing to give their money away to those who will distribute it to the needy. More often, they prefer to ignore, abhor, or sabotage a culture of competition.

When a schoolteacher decides that competition between pupils should be discouraged because it will make some children feel bad she is teaching the values of a culture of care. In training them to empathize with their opponents, she is also making them them into
weaker competitors.

You cannot be a great competitor is you believe that competition is organized cruelty.

These two cultures view psychological problems differently. If you feel badly the first will want you to learn how better to compete, how better to function as part of a group, and how better to conduct yourself in civil society. It will encourage you to work with a coach.

The second will see your suffering as a sign that you need to be cared for. And it will offer various kinds of treatments, from therapy to medicine. These will not get you back in the game, but they will make you feel better about not being in it.

On a broader level the two cultures involve two different sets of values. As David Brooks wrote today, we need, as a nation, to decide where our values lie. As he sees it, this is what is in play in the debate over health care reform: are we a culture of competition or a culture of caring? Link here.

Surely, the two can coexist; we can render to Caesar that which is Caesar's while still rendering unto God that which is God's. But the balance is always fragile, more so when one culture attempts to gain hegemony over the other.

In a time of economic distress, we are tempted to become more caring. Yet, a culture that devalues competitive striving risks not having the resources to care for all of those it has committed to care for.

In Brooks' words: "In the real world, there's usually a trade-off. The unregulated market wants to direct capital to the productive and the young. Welfare policies usually direct resources to the vulnerable and the elderly. Most social welfare legislation, even successful legislation, siphons money from the former to the latter."

So it is not simply a choice between the one or the other. If the culture of caring gains hegemony to the point where society, and especially business, becomes less competitive and less capable of generating profits, there will not be enough resources to buy very much care.

See also Robert Samuelson's analysis of the problem with siphoning money from the productive to the indigent segments of society.
Links here and here.

Finally, if Obamacare does not make sense economically, perhaps its supporters believe that it will be an act of cultural psychotherapy, made to cure us of our excessive interest in competition.

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