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Acton Commentary: Spiritual Competition and the Zero-Sum Game

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Spiritual Competition and the Zero-Sum Game,” I examine a standard complaint against the market economy: that it engenders what Walter Rauschenbusch called “the law of tooth and nail,” a competitive ethos that ends only when the opponent is defeated. In the piece, I trace some of the vociferousness of such claims to the idea of economic reality as a fixed or static pie:

The moral cogency of the argument against competition is enhanced in a framework where the goods that are sought after are static. Whether conceived of in terms of market share or the size of a firm, business and political leaders often use language that makes it seem as if economic gain comes at the expense of others.

Gordon Rupp and Mo FarahWhere goods are static, or otherwise limited in some way, the competitive stakes are raised. Of course we see this not only in market activities but in other areas of life as well, and perhaps these competitive realities are no better illustrated than in competitive sports. We saw numerous examples of competition in the past fortnight of Olympic coverage that ran the gamut from the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of the most memorable moments for me was the conclusion of the men’s 10k track race, when Mohamed Farah of the UK bested his American friend and training partner Galen Rupp. Here are two fierce competitors who embrace, and Rupp celebrates not only his own silver medal but his friend’s great gold-medal performance.

As I conclude in the commentary, competition that drives us to do and be better, in both spiritual and material terms, “ought to be celebrated rather than scorned.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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