The “Go-Getter” Spirit
Competition thrives on insecurity, works against democracy
By M. F. Ashley Montagu
It is often urged that America owes its greatness to the spirit of competition which characterizes its citizens. “Rugged American individualism,” “the go-getter spirit,” and other such phrases, give implicit recognition to this idea. Commerce, it is said, through competition, is the life-blood of a nation.
These ideas, I am going to suggest, are erroneous, tragically erroneous. I am going to suggest that such greatness as America has achieved it has achieved not through competition but in spite of competition; that the life-blood of a nation is not commerce through competition, but social welfare through cooperation; that, indeed, commerce through competition can be the death of a nation, and that only through the dominance of the cooperative motive can any people or nation survive. Finally, that in a competitive society freedom of inquiry is not genuinely possible; that freedom of inquiry is proportional to the development of cooperation within any society, in which there is an absence of dictatorship of any sort, and the person is free to arrive at and express his own judgments without fear of punishment, and in the expectation of the desire in his fellows to understand.
In view of the fact that there exists, at the present time, a widespread belief in the innate nature of competition, that is to say, that competition is a form of behavior with which every organism is born, and that this is particularly true of man, it will be necessary to discuss such facts, with which scientific studies have recently acquainted us, which throw light upon this notion.
Just when the idea of the innate competitiveness of man came into being I have not the least idea. It is at least several thousand years old, and was probably in circulation long before The Old Testament came to be written. It is quite possible that the idea of the innate competitiveness of man is as old as man himself. There are some existing non-literate cultures, such as the Zuni of the American Southwest, which abhor competition and in which the idea of innate competitiveness is non-existent. It is quite possible that many prehistoric peoples held similar notions. But here we are largely in the field of conjecture. One thing, however, is certain, and that is the scientific validation of the idea of the innate competitiveness of man was provided in the nineteenth century by Darwin and his supporters, and particularly by Spencer and the whole school of Social Darwinists who followed his lead.