What can youth athletics teach us about free markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to economic competition?

Sometimes small gestures can prove profoundly spiritually powerful. Spirituality, after all, isn’t just meditating on the top of a mountain or praying by a candlelit bedside. It’s found in real, human gestures that happen around us everyday.

One remarkable illustration of this — and which recently gained national recognition here in the US — happened at a high school wrestling match in St. Paul, Minnesota last month between St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee and Blaine High School sophomore Malik Stewart. Other than the stakes, namely the state championship for the 120 lb weight class, this wasn’t an extraordinary match. Except that the following happened: After Stewart was beaten, he immediately walked over and embraced the father of the opposing wrestler, who is terminally ill with cancer. You can read the whole story here (and I strongly recommend you do.)

What was it about this story that made it so emotionally powerful, and vaulted it into the national spotlight a few days later? I think it’s because sports — and particularly youth sports — can occasionally remind us that even in an ultra-competitive atmosphere, the most beautiful human virtues can rise to the surface. Anyone who’s watched high school wrestling in particular recognizes that the sport uniquely balances strategy and discipline with primal aggression and raw effort. That a spontaneous act of humanity can emerge from such gritty violence is testament to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation. At one moment, two athletes struggle to physically dominate each other as if their lives depended on it. At the very next, those two athletes, as well as a tiny community of spectators, are somehow tearfully united by a simple but powerful gesture.

This basic truth about the coexistence of fierce competition and loving cooperation is at the heart of the Baha’i vision for the world, especially as it relates to economics. The Baha’i Writings in many places decry competition and celebrate cooperation. For instance:

They call this the “struggle for survival” (tanázu’-i baqá), and assert that it is innate to human nature. But this is a grievous error; nay, there is no error greater than this. Gracious God! Even in the animal kingdom cooperation and mutual assistance for survival are observed among some species, especially in the case of danger to the whole group… co-operation for survival, not struggle for survival. Insofar as animals display such noble sentiments, how much more should man, who is the noblest of creatures; and how much more fitting it is in particular that, in view of the divine teachings and heavenly ordinances, man should be obliged to attain this excellence.*

It’s passages like these that lead some Baha’is to casually assert that capitalism and free markets are incongruous with our Faith. But this conclusion dangerously extrapolates the Baha’i teachings on cooperation way too far. The truth is that the Baha’i Faith absolutely allows for a capitalistic system, as long as it is properly regulated and governed by fairness and justice. Baha’u’llah Himself, after all, broke with existing religious tradition by declaring that “it is allowable, lawful and pure to charge interest on money … but this matter must be conducted with moderation and justice”. A century later, Shoghi Effendi commented that “there is nothing in the [Baha’i] teachings against some kind of capitalism; its present form, though, would require adjustments to be made.” Put simply, the Baha’i Faith calls for a fairer version of our current free market system, not a tearing down of that system altogether.

What does high school wrestling have to do with the Baha’i vision for free markets? Because as the two athletes mentioned above proved, competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive. Just as two wrestlers can viciously compete with one another on the mat even in a greater context of honor and respect, so too can individuals and firms compete in the marketplace while respecting the rules and the other players. Firms can aggressively seek to cut costs; consumers can diligently shop for the best products; workers can hold out for the most attractive job opportunities; managers can scour the labor markets for the most efficient workers; and so on and so on, as long as markets are properly regulated and its participants value respect and fairness.

In other words, free markets need not be characterized by rampant greed and selfishness even though they necessarily involve competition, just as an athlete need not forget the importance of sportsmanship even in the midst of an intense physical contest. Just as in sports, moreover, markets commonly produce what economists casually call winners and losers. This shouldn’t be lamented; to use ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s metaphor, the world needs a mix of generals and foot soldiers. Both are needed, and neither is of much use without the other.

This “winner” and “loser” dichotomy is everywhere in the economic sphere. Two firms competing for the same customers will “win” or “lose” on the basis of their efficiency and quality. Workers competing in the same labor market will end up with different wages on the basis of their skills and capabilities. Is this, in and of itself, problematic? I would say No. The real problem is not simply that the market yields different outcomes for different participants. Rather, it’s the degree of winning and losing, as well as our society’s overreaction to the concept of “losing” in the economic sphere, that proves so offensive.

Presently, the so-called “unskilled” worker in both the developed and developing worlds is subjected to a sort of humiliation that goes beyond the “winning” and “losing” dictated by the market. It is not just that wages are low for the American fast food employee or the developing country textile worker, for instance, relative to their peers. It’s that wages are too meager to add up to what we might deem a minimally decent living, particularly in an environment of crumbling — or in much of the developing world, nonexistent — public services.

It’s one thing for a person to be of humble means but to have achieved at least a bearable quality of life. Not everyone needs a mansion and a Range Rover in the garage to feel materially satisfied. For many in the developed world, a modest home in a safe neighborhood, access to decent public education for one’s children, and some basic health coverage that insures against a medically-related financial catastrophe are enough. But for a great number of people, even this scaled-back dream is unattainable. That an unskilled worker has such difficulty simply to live a poor but economically stable life is a great failure of modern day society. In the developing world, the list of basic demands is even more meager — access to food and clean water; functioning schools; some basic medical care; freedom from violence, arbitrary seizures of property, or violation of contracts, etc. — and yet for many, similarly out of reach.

The complete eradication of poverty in all its forms may be an impossible goal. The free market will always produce varying economic outcomes. The dignification of poverty, on the other hand, is not only a worthwhile goal but a measure of our value as a species. That task is about more than just the alleviation of the most deplorable cases of material want, as meritorious as this is in and of itself. It’s also about breaking free from our materialistic assumptions about how to measure the value of a human being, and to stop extrapolating from the concept of “losing” in the economic sense to being a loser in life. This is, to say the least, antithetical to Baha’u’llah’s teachings on what truly constitutes “wealth”:

Be not troubled in poverty nor confident in riches, for poverty is followed by riches, and riches are followed by poverty. Yet to be poor in all save God is a wondrous gift, belittle not the value thereof, for in the end it will make thee rich in God…

The growing tendency on the part of some US political figures to portray the poor as worthless mooches, lazily napping in their hammocks, is particularly troubling. That some now feel emboldened and politically safe enough to express such a view may be about more than just politics. It may also reflect the shift in the American dream away from the middle class home with the white picket fence towards an American Idol-like fantasy of limitless fame and fortune. As we obsess more and more as a nation with getting rich, those unable to make it to the very top are now taking on the implicit identity of society’s “losers”.

On the other hand, the political push here in the US towards fighting income inequality and giving a break to the “working poor” is something to be celebrated. Like I discussed in a previous post, to actually care about these issues is an important moral first step, while exactly how to go about it is a technical one. But even if we’re able to provide some relief to those who need it most, the next step is to change the dialogue about poverty itself and break free from the association between human value and economic status.

There is dignity and beauty in living a materially modest life, not because poverty itself is commendable, but rather that dignity and beauty are not contingent on material things. When a high school athlete loses a wrestling match, it’s understood that the deeper, more significant battles of that young person’s life are won and lost off of the mat. This theme is basic and easily understood. Why is it so hard to understand that the same principal applies to our economic lives as well?


*I found this passage online in an article entitled “Evolution and Baha’i Belief”, which was originally published in 2001. It cites as the original source ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Khitábát, vol. 3, pp. 35-37.


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