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Nietzsche on Competition and Monopoly

When the traveler Pausanias visited the Helicon on his travels through Greece, an ancient copy of the Greeks’ first didactic poem, Hesiod’s Works and Days, was shown to him, inscribed on lead plates and badly damaged by time and weather. [I]t . . . began straight with the assertion: ‘there are two Eris-goddesses on earth’. This is one of the most remarkable of Hellenic ideas and deserves to be impressed upon newcomers right at the gate of entry to Hellenic ethics. ‘One should praise the one Eris as much as blame the other, if one has any sense; because the two goddesses have quite separate dispositions. One promotes wicked war and feuding, the cruel thing! No mortal likes her, but the yoke of necessity forces man to honor the heavy burden of this Eris according to the decrees of the Immortals. Black Night gave birth to this one as the older of the two; but Zeus, who reigned on high, placed the other on the roots of the earth and amongst men as a much better one. She drives even the unskilled man to work; and if someone who asked property see someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant and set his house in order; neighbor competes with neighbor for prosperity. This Eris is good for men. Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.’

Hesiod . . . first portrays one Eris as wicked, in fact the one who leads men in hostile struggle-to-the-death, and then praises the other Eris as good who, as jealousy, grudge and envy, goads men to action, not, however, the action of a struggle-to-the-death but the action of competition. The Greek is envious and does not experience this characteristic as a blemish, but as the effect of a benevolent deity . . . . Because he is envious, he feels the envious eye of a God resting on him whenever he has an excessive amount of honor, wealth, fame and fortune, and he fears this envy; in this case, the God warns him of the transitoriness of the human lot, he dreads his good fortune and, sacrificing the best part of it, he prostrates himself before divine envy.

If we want to see that feeling revealed in its na├»ve form, the feeling that competition is vital, if the well-being of the state is to continue, we should think about the original meaning of ostracism: as, for example, expressed by the Ephesians at the banning of Hermodor. ‘Amongst us, nobody should be the best; but if somebody is, let him be somewhere else, with other people.’ For why should nobody be the best? Because with that, competition would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered. . . . The original function of this strange institution is . . . not as a safety valve but as a stimulant: the pre-eminent individual is removed so that a new contest of powers can be awakened: a thought which is hostile to the ‘exclusivity’ of genius in the modern sense, but which assumes that there are always several geniuses to incite each other to action, just as they keep each other within certain limits, to. That is the kernel of the Hellenic idea of competition: it loathes a monopoly of predominance and fears the dangers of this, it desires, as protective measure against genius—a second genius.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Homer on Competition, in On the Genealogy of Morality 187, 189-92 (Keith Ansell-Pearson ed., Carol Diethe trans., 1995).

Three observations. First, Nietzsche’s remark that “[e]ven potters harbor grudges against potters” reminds us that McCloskey ought to have included envy (the second Eris) among the bourgeois virtues, though she did not. In fact, one often senses that the only really human feeling left in the modern world—the only one for which any individual really is capable of killing or dying—is that of envy. Caged, to be sure, hidden, so rarely acknowledged that one would call it subconscious if one did not so often see that knowing look in the eyes of those it is consuming. I suppose in modern guise envy is what Nietzsche elsewhere calls resentment. Which leads to the second observation.

Second, Hellenic potters may have envied Hellenic potters, but what is distinctly un-bourgeois about the Hellenic world, as described by Nietzsche, is this: “[b]ecause he is envious, [the Greek] feels the envious eye of a God resting on him whenever he has an excessive amount of honor, wealth, fame and fortune, and he fears this envy[.]” The modern does not fear God; he believes, instead, that he deserves his wealth, even when he doesn’t have it, which is why envy spoils into resentment in him. Only the successful Greek would ever mistake himself for a God; but even the unsuccessful modern does that.

Third, Nietzsche is a Chicagoan through and through, not an antimonopolist in the contemporary mold. Yes, Nietzsche does ask : “[W]hy should nobody be the best?” And he does answer: “Because [if someone were the best], competition would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered[.]” But the reason for which the best must be smashed is not to promote fairness. It is not to make equal.

On the contrary, it is to achieve even greater heights of inequality. As Nietzsche says: “[t]he original function of this strange institution [of smashing the best] is . . . not as a safety valve but as a stimulant: the pre-eminent individual is removed so that a new contest of powers can be awakened[.]” So far from making equal, the purpose of competition is to create “—a second genius.” Thus, in the language of today’s antitrust, Nietzsche’s antimonopolism is dynamic and Schumpeterian. He would smash the best only where the best stand so high above everyone else that they inhibit the process of overcoming and surpassing associated with dynamic competition. The notion that markets should be fair, in the sense that the best should be placed on an equal footing with the rest, plays no role in this calculus.

Are we there yet with the Tech Giants? Is Google already an Alexander—“that grotesquely enlarged reflection of the Hellene,” as Nietzsche calls him in the same essay—raging unchecked across the earth? I suppose that the “kill zone” narrative comes closest to making a genuinely Nietzschean case for breakup: no one will innovate in Google’s markets because Google will win.

But only to the extent that the harm of the kill zone is thought to be the toll it takes on excellence.